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Arkansas BOC member challenges Gov. Sanders to help with a ‘viable plan’

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

From Talk Business & Politics:

Arkansas Board of Corrections (BOC) member Lee Watson on Wednesday (Jan. 17) sent a letter to Gov. Sarah Sanders asking her and other state officials to move beyond recent conflicts and lawsuits to chart “the best path forward” in resolving prison overcrowding issues.

“Even though we have our constitutional and policy disagreements, we are very much on the same team. We are not adversarial to you, and I would ask that we let the courts handle our legal business so we can focus on more productive topics,” Watson noted in the five-page letter that was also addressed to Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, Arkansas legislators, and all constitutional boards and commission members.

The letter follows the Jan. 10 firing of Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri by the BOC. Profiri, who was appointed by Sanders and is a member of her cabinet, was fired for acting against the decisions made by the BOC.

Problems between the BOC and Sanders and Griffin became 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.

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 on Dec. 14 filed lawsuits in Pulaski County Circuit Court challenging the constitutionality of sections of Acts 185 and 659. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Patricia James on Dec. 2 granted a temporary restraining order preventing Sanders and Griffin from exercising authority under Acts 185 and 659. A hearing on the lawsuit was held Jan. 4.

In a Nov. 20 letter to Sanders and Griffin, BOC Chair Benny Magness said the state is at a “constitutional crossroads” with Secretary Profiri taking the “erroneous position that he is unaccountable to the Board” and instead is answering to Gov. Sanders.

Sanders has retained Profiri as a consultant and is alleging that Magness and the BOC have “chosen repeatedly to focus on pushing lies, political stunts, and power grabs.” Sanders also has asked Magness to resign saying, it is “clear that the Board of Corrections is incapable of rational, reasonable, or fiscally responsible decision making under your leadership.”

In his letter, Watson pushed back against several Sanders’ claims, including those suggesting the BOC is playing “political games,” and is engaged in “catch and release” of criminals.

“The Board simply has no ‘catch and release’ role to play in the continuum of Arkansas’ criminal justice system. We cannot release any prisoner. Period,” Watson, an attorney for ABB in Fort Smith, wrote.

He also noted that unless the courts find otherwise, the BOC has constitutional authority over management of the Department of Corrections, and it would be illegal for the BOC to hand that authority over to the governor or any other party. He said future management of the prisons will require more funding to address the growing problem of overcrowding.

“Moving forward, the Board, the Department of Corrections, and Arkansas Community Corrections will continue doing everyone in our power to safely add beds to our facilities to alleviate the county jail backup. But we need funding. We need to enhance our existing facilities to accommodate the expanding needs of the criminal justice system in Arkansas, and we need to be able to attract, recruit, train, and retain critical staff. And we need this funding quickly,” Watson wrote.

He ended the letter with an “open invitation” for all parties to “join us at the table to create a viable plan.” (Link here for a PDF copy of Watson’s letter.)

Sanders’ spokesperson Alexa Henning provided Talk Business & Politics with this statement when asked about Watson’s letter: “By their own admission, the Board of Corrections has been fostering the same problems through the same failed policies and the same failed leadership for years, yet refuses to make any changes. The Governor’s focus remains on the safety of Arkansans and ending the failed policy of catch and early release of violent criminals in this state, which is why she hired Joe Profiri to advise on these issues. The Board of Corrections can continue to try and cover up for their record of failure; Governor Sanders will do everything in her power to protect Arkansans and their communities.”