LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas' prison system is struggling with a high number of vacancies as the department tries to address a violent rash of incidents that have included attacks on guards by inmates, the state's correction chief told lawmakers Wednesday.
Arkansas Department of Correction officials told a legislative panel that more than 300 of the 4,700 positions in the state's prison system remain vacant, and retaining the employees has been a problem along with luring applicants. The officials spoke a day after announcing a series of security upgrades they're taking in response to recent prison violence.
"There aren't a lot of people banging down the doors wanting to come to work for us," Department Director Wendy Kelley said. "But we do hire a lot of people. They just don't choose to stay."
Kelley said she isn't certain whether proper staffing levels would have made a difference in some of the disturbances recently at the state's prisons.
The disturbances have included the assault of three guards by inmates at two facilities on the same day last month. Others include an August incident at the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker — also known as Tucker Max — where inmates held three guards hostage after taking keys and a Taser. A month earlier, a guard at the same prison fired warning shots into the air after two guards and an inmate were attacked there.
The upgrades announced by the department include renovations to the single-person pens inmates use for recreation breaks. department had already said it planned to replace the Tucker Max recreation pens after Kelley said the July and August incidents there began when inmates managed to escape the chain-link pens. The department is also increasing the number of restrictive housing cells for inmates with disciplinary violations.
Kelley said the department also is discussing longer-term proposals to bring before lawmakers later, including naming a prosecutor or deputy prosecutor to handle cases involving prisons. Currently, those cases are handled by the local prosecutor where the prison facility is located.
"It would help us to respond more quickly to the incidents as they occur," Kelley said.
Arkansas State Police officials told the panel that they've investigated 16 cases of inmate-on-inmate assault and battery so far this year, and 28 assault and battery cases by inmates on prison staff. State Police said last year investigated 14 inmate-on-inmate cases and 29 inmate-on-staff cases.
Kelley said other long-range proposals may include asking lawmakers to fund holiday pay for prison employees, which is currently funded by savings from unfilled positions. The proposal would allow the department to use those savings instead to increase hazard pay for some prison employees.
State Sen. Joyce Elliott, who co-chairs the panel overseeing the prison system, said after the hearing she needs more answers on the incidents and what led to the disturbances.
"Is this is a systemic problem or is this four months of anomalies?" she told reporters.