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Arkansas Corrections Board hires attorney, approves some new prison beds

Michael Hibblen
Little Rock Public Radio
The Arkansas Department of Corrections' Cummins Unit in Gould is seen in this file photo from April 2017.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

The Arkansas Board of Corrections on Friday hired an outside attorney to represent it in employment matters, a step a board member said was taken in response to criticism of the board last month by Attorney General Tim Griffin.

The board voted 3-2 to hire Abtin Mehdizadegan, a labor and employment lawyer with the Little Rock firm of Hall Booth Smith. The vote came with almost no discussion after a 45-minute closed-door session.

Griffin quickly questioned the board’s authority to hire outside counsel without obtaining his office’s consent, citing state law that says the attorney general’s office represents state officials and entities.

“Further, the Board of Corrections’ own administrative regulation ADC 1.8 contemplates referring civil lawsuits involving employees to the Attorney General,” Griffin said.

The Corrections Board also approved on Friday a request to add 124 new beds at the Barbara Ester Unit near Pine Bluff. The facility primarily houses incarcerated people who are within six months of release and provides job training and educational opportunities.

The board’s refusal last month to approve Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri’s request to add 500 new beds across the prison system prompted public criticism from Griffin and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Corrections Board Chairman Benny Magness responded to that criticism with a Nov. 20 letter, saying concerns about staffing shortages led to the rejection of Profiri’s request and that Profiri hadn’t provided the board with sufficient information to make an informed decision. Magness also raised concerns about legislative attempts to rein in the board’s independence, which is written into the state Constitution.

The dispute involves how to solve the state’s long-standing problem of too many prisoners and too few prison beds. That problem has been complicated by the prison system’s difficulty hiring and retaining guards.

The solution over the last decade has been to house the overflow of state inmates in county jails, but sheriffs and county officials have complained about the strain that puts on their jails.

The state is also bracing for even more inmates entering the system for longer terms in the coming years as Arkansas’ new “truth-in-sentencing” law takes effect.

Sanders has set aside money to build a new prison and add more than 3,000 new beds to the state’s capacity, but that will take several years to complete. The state last built a new prison in 2005.

Request resubmitted

At Friday’s board meeting, Profiri resubmitted his request to add 492 beds at three prisons: the 124 beds at the Ester Unit; 124 beds at the Maximum Security Unit, also near Pine Bluff; and 244 beds at the McPherson Unit, a women’s prison near Newport.

The board gave partial approval to the McPherson request after extensive questioning of Profiri about staffing and crowding issues but tabled the Max Unit request.

As of Friday, the state prison population totaled 18,499, a decrease of 44 since November, Corrections Director Dexter Payne told the board. The backlog of state inmates being held in county jails totaled 1,700, he said.

Much of the discussion regarding McPherson centered on where the inmates to fill the new McPherson beds would come from — primarily from county jails or from other state prisons that also house women.

Payne said there are presently 146 female state prisoners in county lockups.

Board members authorized renovations to begin on a closed building at McPherson but said they want to revisit the issue of where the inmates will be coming from.

“It’s the board’s right to question things,” member William “Bud” Byers told Profiri. “There ought to be transparency” in the interactions between the secretary’s office and the board.

Referring to last month’s rejection of Profiri’s requests, Byers said, “We didn’t have the discussion we’re having today.”

Staffing concerns

Discussion of both the McPherson and Max Unit requests also dealt with whether staffing would be sufficient.

The addition of the 124 beds at the Max Unit will be accomplished by reopening an inactive, stand-alone re-entry center on the campus, Profiri’s request indicated.

Payne told the board the additional beds at McPherson would require 12 more correctional officers and four sergeants; the Max Unit beds will require 10 correctional officers, four sergeants and one lieutenant.

Profiri and Payne noted that the department has opened a new recruiting office in Newport that they believe will help fill vacancies at McPherson.

Profiri also expressed confidence that the department can adequately deal with staffing shortages through overtime and cutting back on nonessential activities. The department has spent $15 million on overtime this year, he said.

Byers told Profiri he wanted a report on how the department will handle staffing shortages at the Max Unit, and board vice president Rev. Tyrone Broomfield asked, “What happens if you don’t have the staffing?”

“I have the staffing now,” Profiri responded, holding up a large staffing chart from which he read details of individual shift assignments and overtime that he said will keep the community, guards and inmates safe.

“Why are you just telling us this now?” Byers asked.

Profiri replied that he thought the board would trust his agency would do its job responsibly.

Dr. Whitney Gass, another board member, said: “We don’t know you that well.”

Magness told Profiri that sharing the information from the staffing chart helped, but the board still did not approve the request.

After the approvals of two of the three additional prison space requests, Profiri told the Advocate he was “thrilled we’re moving in the right direction.”

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years.