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Governor calls on Corrections Board Chair to resign, he says he will stay

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

From Talk Business & Politics:

Gov. Sarah Sanders responded Friday (Dec. 22) to a letter from Board of Corrections (BOC) Chairman Benny Magness, who requested National Guard help to assist with prison security earlier in the week.

Sanders denied Magness’ request, calling it a “political stunt,” and called on him to resign immediately.

Magness’ spokesperson, Dina Tyler, tells Talk Business & Politics that Magness said “fully intends to serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in two years.”

Sanders was responding to Magness’ Dec. 20th request to provide 40 Guard members to relieve “Certified Correctional Staff who will then provide the manpower to open the 124-bed Tucker Re-Entry Center. The Guardsmen will fill positions which are staffed 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.”

Magness also requested an additional 98 Guard members to be utilized in similar positions at various units “which have a Correctional Officer I vacancy rate that exceeds 40% as of November 30, 2023,” according to Magness’ letter.

“I am in receipt of your letter requesting that 138 National Guardsman be deployed to work full-time in the prisons. Your letter is yet another example of the desire to play political games, and this time you are involving our brave National guardsmen and women as pawns,” Sanders wrote. “[Corrections] Secretary Profiri had a plan to safely reopen beds with no additional personnel needed. If the Board wants to reactivate beds, then they should reinstate the Secretary and implement his plan without delay. I will not inject our guardsmen and women into a purely political situation caused by the very person requesting them.”

“It is clear that the Board of Corrections is incapable of rational, reasonable, or fiscally responsible decision making under your leadership. Much as it has been over the past two decades, you believe that you are the sole member of the board. Your letters, actions, and commands issued at the department, which lack prior board approval or a public board vote, make that glaringly obvious. You refuse to abide by the law or operate in the public eye, engaging in conduct that does not constitute an official action of the Board. After 27 years, it is time for you to stand out of the way of progress and let someone actually focused on the safety of Arkansans take your place on the board. Someone who shares an actual concern for the situation in which we find ourselves, rather than someone who cares only about his own power,” Sanders’ letter said.

A conflict between the BOC and Sanders and Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin went public on Nov. 17 when Sanders and Griffin held a press conference during which the governor blasted the BOC for rejecting most of a request to provide more than 600 additional beds in the prison system. The BOC is the governing body of the state’s prison system. BOC members at the time made it clear that the prison system lacked the staff to responsibly add more beds.

The BOC also suspended Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri for acting against BOC decisions.

Sanders and Griffin say that Acts 185 and 659, passed in the 2023 Legislative Session, give the governor direct authority over leadership at the Department of Corrections. The BOC has filed lawsuits in Pulaski County Circuit Court challenging the constitutionality of sections of Acts 185 and 659. The lawsuits list Sanders, Griffin, Profiri and the Arkansas Department of Corrections as defendants.

A judge has issued a temporary restraining order suspending Acts 185 and 659 until a post-Christmas hearing takes place.

This story comes from the staff of Talk Business & Politics, a content partner with KUAR News. You can hear the weekly program on Mondays at 6:06 p.m.