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Arkansas prison board votes to name former state senator interim corrections secretary

Former state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams talks with Arkansas Department of Corrections staff after being named interim secretary of corrections on Jan. 31, 2024.
Hunter Field
/
Arkansas Advocate
Former state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams talks with Arkansas Department of Corrections staff after being named interim secretary of corrections on Jan. 31, 2024.

The Arkansas Board of Corrections voted Wednesday to hire a former Republican state senator as the prison system’s interim head.

The vote — which wasn’t included on the meeting’s agenda and required a suspension of the board’s rules — to make former Sen. Eddie Joe Williams of Cabot the interim secretary of the Department of Corrections came three weeks after the board fired then-Secretary Joe Profiri.

The board also approved additional inmate space at one facility, pending the hiring of more guards. And it ran into a stumbling block regarding payment of an attorney it hired to represent it in a lawsuit against the governor.

Williams’ hiring Wednesday afternoon was immediately challenged by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office.

Williams, who served in the Arkansas Senate from 2011-2017, described himself as neutral in the ongoing dispute between the board and Sanders and said he intended to only lead the department temporarily.

“I’m here to try to bridge the gap and steady the ship through these uncharted waters,” Williams said.

He said he hoped to pull all the different parties together and that finding new inmate beds would be the top priority.

Shortly after the board’s votes, Sanders’ communications director, Alexa Henning, said Williams’ hiring was illegal.

“This action today is a violation of the law,” she said. “The Board of Corrections knows that it is only the Governor who selects and nominates the Secretary.”

The ongoing dispute between the board and the governor, Profiri and Attorney General Tim Griffin has created an unprecedented situation with no corrections secretary in place.

Board Chairman Benny Magness said after the meeting that Williams was meant to fill the position until Sanders makes a new nomination, and the board was asking her to do so.

However, Profiri was Sanders’ pick to lead the department, and she hired him as a senior aide in the governor’s office while the legal appeal over Profiri’s and Sanders’ authority over state prisons proceeds.

Profiri’s termination came shortly after a Pulaski County judge sided with the Board of Corrections in its lawsuit against Profiri and the governor. The judge entered a preliminary injunction blocking a new state law that put the corrections secretary under the governor rather than the board.

Still, the governor — since state government was reorganized in 2019 — has appointed a prisons secretary, who then was confirmed by and reported to the board.

Williams doesn’t have extensive background in corrections, but in the Legislature, he chaired the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs where he worked on prison issues.

He has also helped develop the Division of Correction’s new inmate seminary program.

His professional career spanned nearly 40 years at Union Pacific, where he became a regional director for transportation, and in 2017, he was appointed by former President Donald Trump to the Southern States Energy Board.

Temporary expansion approved

The board on Wednesday also approved the last leg of a plan to temporarily expand the state’s inmate capacity.

The Board of Corrections has now approved all 622 expansion beds that prompted lawsuits and disputes with Sanders and other state officials.

The board had wanted assurances that inmates and guards would be safe under the plan to re-open 124 beds at the Max Unit Re-Entry Center.

Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne pledged to not open the center until eight new correctional officers are hired.

The Department of Corrections has been trying since the fall to add temporary beds to reduce the number of state inmates that have backed up into county jails due to overcrowding in the prison system.

Arkansas Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne prepares to take his seat at a Board of Corrections meeting on Jan. 31, 2024.
Hunter Field
/
Arkansas Advocate
Arkansas Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne prepares to take his seat at a Board of Corrections meeting on Jan. 31, 2024.

As of Wednesday, 1,678 inmates in state custody were being housed in county jails out of necessity.

“These will be new hires,” Payne said, noting it would likely take a couple of weeks to fill the positions.

Arkansas’ prisons have been over-capacity for years, relying on early prisoner releases and county jails to manage the overflow.

On Wednesday, 18,522 people had been committed to the Division of Correction’s jurisdiction, but the system’s rated capacity is only 15,022.

The Sanders administration has committed to building a new 3,000-bed prison, but that will take time.

In the meantime, Sanders and Profiri have been searching for ways to increase the prison system’s current capacity. Prison board members have said they share the same goal, but they’ve said they want to be sure that the expansions can happen safely before approving them.

Payne said the new beds at the Re-Entry Center will be filled by inmates from across the prison system, opening space for 124 inmates currently being held in county jails.

Legal fees

The disagreements between the Board of Corrections, the governor and other state officials led to a pair of lawsuits— one filed by the board against Sanders and Profiri and one filed by the attorney general against the board.

Now, there is some confusion and disagreement about how the board should go about paying the more than $51,000 legal bill to the outside council it hired to represent it in court.

The department’s chief financial officer in a Jan. 19 memo questioned whether the board followed the proper procurement procedures to hire Abtin Mehdizadegan and the Hall Booth Smith law firm.

The board voted to direct agency CFO Chad Brown to determine the best way to proceed to lawfully pay the legal bill. Brown presented two options in his memo: seeking approval for the contract through the Arkansas Legislative Council or filing a claim with the Arkansas Claims Commission.

“We entered into a contract with Mr. Mehdizadegan, and we have an obligation to pay him,” said board member Lee Watson.

Mehdizadegan successfully litigated both lawsuits so far, though Attorney General Tim Griffin has said he plans to appeal rulings in both cases.

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.