Arkansas Prisons

The Cummins Unit in southeast Arkansas has been the state prison hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
KATV-Channel 7

This is the first of a three-part series on the coronavirus outbreak in Arkansas prisons, supported by the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.

As the coronavirus pandemic has swept through Arkansas during the last three months — nearly 1,200 inmates in four of the state’s prisons have tested positive for COVID-19. At least 134 staff working at eight state prisons have also tested positive.

Cummins Unit Prison
Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

A federal lawsuit accuses Arkansas of violating the constitutional and legal rights of prison inmates by not taking adequate steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The class-action complaint was filed Tuesday on behalf of 11 inmates at state prisons, including three at the Cummins Unit in southeast Arkansas, where 670 inmates have tested positive.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (left) listens Sunday as Department of Corrections Director Dexter Payne discusses the outbreak at the Cummins Unit in southeast Arkansas.
Governor's Office / YouTube

The number of coronavirus deaths in Arkansas increased to 40 on Sunday, including – for the first time – a health care worker.

Dr. Nate Smith, secretary of the Department of Health, said it was someone who worked at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff and was associated with the first outbreak in the state. Another death announced Sunday involved a nursing home resident, Smith said. He did not offer any additional details, other than to say both were under the age of 65.

Willie Mae Harris
Department of Correction

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he will commute the sentence of a woman convicted more than three decades ago of fatally shooting her husband, who had physically abused her.

Hutchinson on Wednesday announced his intent to make Willie Mae Harris immediately eligible for parole.

Harris was convicted in 1985 of first degree murder in the shooting death of her husband.

Harris admitted to shooting her husband, but has said it was an accident related to self defense.

Calvin Adams
Department of Correction

A convicted killer who disappeared from an Arkansas prison has been found hiding on its roof.

Arkansas Department of Corrections spokeswoman Dina Tyler says authorities found inmate Calvin Adams on Tuesday hiding underneath a large ventilation hood on the roof of the East Arkansas Regional Unit in Brickeys, about 110 miles east of Little Rock.

Tyler says Adams had apparently been hiding on the roof since he went missing early Monday. She says he managed to climb onto the roof but was stranded because there was nowhere else to go.

Calvin Adams
Department of Correction

Arkansas prison officials are unsure whether a convicted murderer they reported missing from a prison has left the facility's grounds.

Arkansas Department of Correction Spokeswoman Dina Tyler said Monday authorities are unsure whether Calvin Adams has gotten past the electric fence of the East Arkansas Regional Unit in the community of Brickeys. It's located about 110 miles east of Little Rock.

File photo. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R).
Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Arkansas's attorney general is seeking to move lawsuits challenging a measure giving the prison director authority to determine an inmate's competency to be executed to federal court.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on Thursday filed notice to move the lawsuits by death row inmates Bruce Ward and Jack Greene from Jefferson County Circuit Court. The state Supreme Court in November struck down an earlier version of the mental competency law.

Legislators this year approved a reworked version of the law, and the inmates are seeking to have it overturned.

Arkansas state Sen. Joyce Elliot, Rep. Vivian Flowers and former inmate Kurt Muhammad
MaKayla Ealy / KUAR News

A bill is before the Arkansas legislature that would require inmates who have to work while serving prison sentences be paid for their labor.

Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, is the lead sponsor of the bill. She hopes instituting a pay scale for prison work programs will decrease extraordinarily high rates of recidivism. Money inmates earn would be available to them for supplies while in prison and after they are released to ease their transition back into society.

David Monteith / KUAR News

Reducing the number of people in Arkansas prisons is one of the goals of gubernatorial candidate Jared Henderson.

Monday Henderson released his plan for reforming Arkansas’s criminal justice system to address what he calls the "epidemic of mass incarceration" in the state.

John Brown
KARK-Channel 4

An Arkansas man who has been imprisoned since 1992 for robbery and murder convictions has been released after a judge overturned his conviction last month.

A judge ordered John Brown's release Wednesday after he served 26 years for the 1988 killing and robbery of an elderly woman in Fordyce. The Midwest Innocence Project, which appealed on Brown's behalf, says Brown's lawyer at the time was "ineffective and corrupt," and argued the state withheld potentially exculpatory evidence.

In 2015, Brown's co-defendant confessed to committing the crimes alone.

Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Two more inmates have died of possible drug overdoses at a maximum security prison in southeast Arkansas.

Arkansas Department of Correction attorney James DePriest say the inmates aged 26 and 55 were found unresponsive Wednesday in their cells at Varner Supermax Unit, about 50 miles southeast of Little Rock.

DePriest has said three other inmates were found unresponsive earlier this week and that they died within 24 hours of each other .

Varner Arkansas Department of Correction Cummins Prison
Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

A Department of Correction official says three inmates have died in less than 24 hours at a prison in southeast Arkansas, possibly from drug use.

Spokesman James DePriest said Monday that both state police and the department are investigating to determine the cause of the deaths at Varner and its supermax unit.

A convicted killer from Arkansas has died in suburban Detroit, 47 years after he visited Michigan on a brief furlough - and never returned to prison.

Lester Stiggers was 68 years old. His daughter, L'Donne Hampton, tells The Associated Press that he died Saturday at his apartment in Warren, probably from a heart attack.

Stiggers made headlines in 2013 when Arkansas asked Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to send him back. It was the first time in years that Arkansas had expressed interest in Stiggers, who entered Michigan in 1970 and worked as a plumber and auto worker.

Varner Arkansas Department of Correction Cummins Prison
Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Five inmates have been charged in unrelated attacks the same afternoon that injured guards at two Arkansas prisons and number among a string of violent disturbances in the state's correctional facilities this year.

Four inmates have each been charged with two counts of battery in a Sept. 28 attack on two guards at the Varner Unit.

Another prisoner has been charged with one count of battery in another attack that occurred the same day at the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker.

Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Arkansas prison officials say the inmates who held two guards hostage for two and a half hours at a maximum security prison over the weekend have been returned to state custody after being treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

David Monteith / KUAR News

A turnip garden in Little Rock marked the site of a major milestone for reducing hunger in Arkansas Monday.

The Arkansas Gleaning Project celebrated its 10 millionth pound of gleaned produce by harvesting turnips from the Western Hills Park Garden. Michelle Shope, with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, said The Arkansas Gleaning Project has fed hundreds of thousands of people since its inception in 2008.

Arkansas Death Chamber Lethal Injection
Department of Correction

The state of Arkansas has identified a New York pharmaceutical company – that doesn’t want its product used in executions – as the manufacturer of a recently acquired lethal injection drug. Arkansas was to carry out an execution Thursday night before the state Supreme Court granted an emergency stay based on questions about the mental health of death row inmate Jack Greene.

Image via Creative Commons

A criminal record can often prevent people from obtaining employment, secure housing, or qualifying for loans. But a clinic hosted by the Center for Arkansas Legal Services hopes to change that by helping low-income people seal criminal records for minor offenses. The clinic will take place Friday at Shorter College in North Little Rock.

A group of teens play volleyball during recess at a youth lockup facility in Harrisburg in Northeast Arkansas. They are in custody for doing things like breaking and entering, possessing a firearm, or stealing a car, and they will be there anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.

Governor Asa Hutchinson
Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Arkansas’ governor called for additional safeguards at the state’s prisons on Friday after a string of violence that included three guards being assaulted by inmates and hospitalized a day earlier in separate attacks at two facilities.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was greatly concerned by the incidents Thursday afternoon in which two guards were assaulted by several inmates at the Varner Unit hours after a guard was assaulted by a prisoner in another incident at the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker.

Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

An Arkansas official says three inmates who were injured in a disturbance at a state prison have returned to the facility after being treated at area hospitals.

Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves says the three inmates who were hospitalized after Thursday night's disturbance at the Cummins Unit in Grady had swelling to the face. The department said Friday that inmates in a single housing area within the prison broke windows and damaged surveillance equipment.

Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Arkansas' top prison official says two disturbances at a maximum security facility began when prisoners managed to escape solitary fenced in areas during their recreation breaks.

One disturbance involved three officers being held hostage by inmates.

Correction Department Director Wendy Kelley spoke to lawmakers on Monday about last week's incident at the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker. She says it began when two inmates escaped from their solitary recreation pens and followed two officers escorting another inmate inside.

Solomon Graves Arkansas Department of Correction Tucker Maximum Security Prison
KATV, Channel 7 News

A maximum security prison in Arkansas is returning to normal operations after inmates snatched keys from three officers and held them in an area of the facility for about three hours.

Correction Department Spokesman Solomon Graves said the disturbance at the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker has been resolved, but did not provide further details about the six inmates who had taken the keys. The three officers had been released earlier Monday evening.

An inmate who had not been involved in the initial disturbance was taken to the hospital earlier Monday with injuries.

Pulaski County Judge Wendell Griffen
PBS

The Arkansas Parole Board is halting action under the state's new law that eliminates mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles after a judge said it's unconstitutional.

The United States Supreme Court ruled Monday that an Alabama death row inmate has the right to a mental health evaluation from a neutral party. Previously, such evaluations were done by doctors within state government. 

In April, Arkansas inmates Don Davis and Bruce Ward were granted stays of execution after asking for such independent evaluations.

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of an Alabama inmate who complained that he didn't have an independent mental health expert to help him try to stave off a death sentence at his trial.

The justices divided 5-4 Monday in siding with inmate James McWilliams. He did not have his own expert when he was convicted of raping and killing a convenience store clerk in Tuscaloosa.

The justices had previously decided that poor defendants whose mental health might be a factor in the criminal charges they are facing have a right to an expert's evaluation.

http://www.goodgrid.com/

Arkansas Community Correction officials plan to continue operating an online portal that assists ex-convicts in their transition back to society. On Wednesday the state Board of Corrections approved a $50,000 contract for maintenance and upgrades to the Good Grid, a social media-like website. It allows former inmates to upload and build resumes and set up profiles accessible to prospective employers.

A lawyer is trying to obtain information about the drugs Arkansas will use in an unprecedented run of executions next month, but prison officials say the information is a secret they must keep.

Steven Shults was in court Thursday seeking the drugs' packing labels. The prison officials say that, after The Associated Press previously used labels to identify drugmakers, they will no longer distribute them.

Pulaski County Judge Wendell Griffen
PBS

An Arkansas judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the state's lethal injection law, the latest setback for efforts to block the state's unprecedented plan to conduct four double executions over a 10-day period next month.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen granted the state's motion Tuesday to dismiss the lawsuit filed by eight inmates facing lethal injection next month. Griffen said he has no jurisdiction over the case after the state Supreme Court upheld the lethal injection law and protocol.

Will Bond Bryan King Dan Greenberg
Jacob Kuaffman / KUAR News

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill Monday that would require offenders sentenced three times previously to the Department of Correction to serve at least 80% of their sentences on the next commitment.

Senate Bill 177 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, passed by a voice vote and now goes to the full Senate.

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