Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Betsey Wright charged in prison case

Posted By on Wed, Aug 12, 2009 at 4:07 PM

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Betsey Wright, chief of staff under Gov. Bill Clinton and a long-time familiar figure in state and national politics, has been charged with 51 felony counts of attempting to take contraband items into the Varner Unit of the prison system, which houses Death Row.

Prosecuting Attorney Steve Dalrymple of Pine Bluff said Wright was charged wtih attempting to take in an ink pen with tweezers and a needle inside; a Swiss Army-style pocketknife of undetermined size; a "blue box cutter with razor" of undetermined size, and 48 "tattoo needles." In a phone interview, Dalrymple had referred to these as "tattoo syringes," but the information faxed to me later indicated they were needles.

Wright, 66, declined to comment, though she'd told me weeks ago when we first mentioned a case of potential contraband on Death Row in our Insider column that she was the target of the prison investigation and she said the charge was unfounded.

Her attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, said: "We're disappointed that the prosecutor has chosen to file charges. Betsey Wright is innocent. She has been a vehement supporter of prisoners' rights and often an irritant to prison administration. It's our feeling that they have decided to take a willfully negative interpretation of some ambiguous circumstances. We intend to fight the charges."

Dalrymple wouldn't speculate on the intended use of the items, whether mostly for tattoos or other purposes.

The items were found when Wright was going through the security clearance process for a visit to the unit on May 22. She did not enter a prison unit with them. The needles were found in a Doritos bag that Wright said she'd found lying in a vending machine. She thought she'd found a free snack to take to an inmat.

The filing of charges raises, for one, questions of how often the Correction Department pursues felony charges on contraband, particularly items discovered before entry. I was unable to reach a prison spokesman after office hours.

Dalrymple told me an interview last week that contraband is a routine occurrence in the prison -- from drugs, tobacco and alcohol to cell phones. Regular prison visitors tell me that they often see people found in possession of prohibited items who are allowed to take them back to their cars before entry. Wright was immediately subjected to questioning on the items. I couldn't get a description from Dalrymple of the knife and box cutter, but hope to be able to obtain photos eventually.

Here's the full detail of the state's case, released after a district judge ruled there was probable cause to issue an arrest warrant. Dalrymple and Rosenzweig had previously reached an agreement for Wright to surrender on the charges next week in Lincoln County and to post a $1,500 bond. Rosenzweig is in Jonesboro this week as part of the defense team seeking to win freedom of the West Memphis Three.

The Wright charges come amid a string of embarrassing prison incidents, from escapes to the fatal shooting of a man attempting to drive away from the unit after a guard discovered he was wanted for failing to make a visit to a parole office. There was also an incident in which a prisoner was left nearly to die in feces by guards. A criminal investigation of the shooting case remains underway in Dalrymple's office.

Rosenzweig's description of prison officials' view of Wright as an "irritant" is mild. They have been deeply stung by press and legislative criticism and have long resented Wright's outspoken advocacy. Some are holdover employhees from the days when the Clinton administration fought to reform a prison system riddled with corruption. They are accustomed to running the prisons as a no-questions-asked fiefdom and Wright was not shy about criticizing the small ways in which prison officials can add misery to lives of prisoners by such things as withholding mail or other small privileges.

In the end, pressing charges against Wright might bring more sunshine to a dark world in need of it, even if she was fairly charged.

Wright's devotion to Death Row cases -- obsession many would call it -- has caused even some ideological soulmates to distance themselves from Wright at times. She's spent a sizable portion of her modest means in making regular visits to the prison from her home in Northwest Arkansas.

The charges, specifically, are three class C felonies for attempting to furnish prohibited articles into a correctional facility (the pen with tweezers, knife and box cutter), and 48 class d felonies, the needles.

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