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Arkansas Board of Corrections fires prisons chief in escalating dispute with governor

Former Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Corrections Joe Profiri, left, listens as Gov.Sarah Huckabee Sanders talks about criminal justice legislation during a news conference at the State Capitol on March 28, 2023.
John Sykes
Arkansas Advocate
Former Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Corrections Joe Profiri, left, listens as Gov.Sarah Huckabee Sanders talks about criminal justice legislation during a news conference at the State Capitol on March 28, 2023.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

This story was updated at 8:17 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2024 with comments from the governor’s office.

Arkansas’ prison oversight board on Wednesday fired Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri — a week after a judge ruled that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ cabinet appointee served at the pleasure of the board for now.

Attorney General Tim Griffin has pledged to appeal that ruling, so it isn’t clear if Profiri, who came to Arkansas from Arizona a year ago with Sanders when she took office, will be permanently ousted.

Shortly after the ouster, Sanders announced that she would hire Profiri as a senior advisor, calling his termination a political stunt.

Profiri has had a strained relationship with the Board of Corrections since Sanders gave him a $40,000-a-year pay raise shortly after taking office and without the board’s approval. He was paid an annual salary of $210,000.

Tensions exploded in November when Sanders, Profiri and Griffin called a press conference to publicly criticize the board over its refusal to grant Profiri permission to implement the entirety of his plan to temporarily add 622 new inmates beds in existing prisons.

The board has raised concerns about whether the Department of Corrections’ staff and infrastructure are adequate to handle more than 600 new inmates, but it has approved all but 124 of the additional beds.

Board member Lee Watson, who made the motion to terminate Profiri on Wednesday, said Profiri had been dismissive, argumentative and uncooperative with the board, which voted to suspend Profiri with pay Dec. 14.

Immediately after his suspension, Profiri said he planned to ignore the board’s directive because he reported to the governor, though a court order a day later forced him to comply with the suspension.

Wednesday afternoon, the board voted 5-2 to fire Profiri at a special meeting held by teleconference, with the “No” votes coming from John Felts and Sanders’ newest appointment, Brandon Tollett.

“I think Arkansas deserves better,” Watson said. “It’s been a very uncomfortable year for all of us, and we need to move forward as rapidly as we can with adding beds but most importantly with building a new facility.”

Asked for comment and whether he felt the board had the authority to fire Profiri, Griffin said through a spokesperson only that he was “disappointed” by the board’s decision.

Sanders’ office issued a statement Thursday evening announcing Profiri’s new role during the ongoing litigation.

“My focus is on the safety of Arkansans and ending the failed policy of catch and early release of violent criminals in this state. Sadly, the Board of Corrections has chosen repeatedly to focus on pushing lies, political stunts, and power grabs,” Sanders said. “We firmly support Joe Profiri as Secretary of Corrections and are proud of the accomplishments we’ve achieved together.”

Profiri said he was happy to join the governor’s office, but was disappointed “to see politics being played with the safety and security of Arkansans.”

“Certain members of the Board are making false and misleading claims all in an effort to hold power and keep the status quo, which for decades has created a dangerous and broken system,” Profiri said. “The work of Corrections is to keep communities safe by retaining violent, repeat offenders and adequately preparing offender populations for reintegration.”

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Patricia James ruled in the board’s favor last Thursday, entering a preliminary injunction that blocks a pair of new state laws that curtailed the board’s authority over Profiri and his two deputies over the prison and parole systems.

While James has yet to enter a written order, the injunction extends her previous restraining order that found the board was likely correct that Act 185 of 2023 and Sections 79 and 89 of Act 659 of 2023 violated the Arkansas Constitution by stripping authority granted to the Board of Corrections by Amendment 33.

The Board of Corrections, like the governing boards of Arkansas’ public universities, was granted some level of independence by Amendment 33 to insulate it from the ever-shifting political tides.

It has general supervisory authority over prisons and the parole and probation system, and the board interprets Amendment 33 as giving it hiring and firing power over the corrections secretary.

Its members are appointed by the governor and serve seven-year terms.

Deputy Editor of Arkansas Advocate, which is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization, supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Advocate retains full editorial independence.