On nabbing Betsey | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On nabbing Betsey

Posted By on Thu, Aug 13, 2009 at 12:12 PM

Would John Q. Citizen have faced 51 felony charges if found in possession of the same items former Clinton aide Betsey Wright was found to have at a Varner prison security check point in May?


“Absolutely,” says prison spokesman Dina Tyler. “She was treated no differently than anybody else. She was caught with contraband. We didn’t do the investigation. We turned it over to the State Police because we suspected a crime had occurred.”


Said Prosecutor Steve Dalrymple of Pine Bluff, who brought the charge in Lincoln County: “Certainly.”


Neither could immediately recall a prosecution of a non-inmate, however, but both promised to search records for examples.


Dalrymple said everyone knows officers at potential crime scenes have discretion on pursuing an investigation, but once a State Police file reaches his office, “we routinely handle it.”


Many prison visitors have said a typical reaction to contraband at security checkpoints is to order visitors to take it back to their vehicles. In serious cases, visitors might be banned for a time. Wright was banned from all prison units after the May discovery.


Both Tyler and Dalrymple noted a higher degree of concern about potential weapons. Wright had a two-inch Swiss army-style pocket knife and what’s been described as a box cutter -- a razor blade in a circular plastic holder -- on her key ring, which was readily found among her possessions when she was checked by guards May 22. The bulk of the charges stemmed from 48 tattooing needles found in a Doritos bag she was carrying. She said she found the bag in a vending machine and treated it as a free found snack, not knowing that needles had been sealed up inside. Officials are skeptical of her account, particularly in the company of the other items. That particular brand was not sold in the vending machine, which doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been placed there. Evidence as the case goes forward may shed light on where the bag could have been purchased.


Dalrymple declined to allow us to inspect the investigative file to obtain photos of the items taken from Wright. He said that was in keeping with his office’s policy of releasing only information presented to a judge for a determination of probable cause to make an arrest. We posted that information on-line yesterday.


Dalrymple couldn’t immediately recall prosecuting a case of contraband against a “free-world” person, though he has prosecuted several inmates recent for weapons possession and throwing urine on a guard. Tyler said she was confident the prisons had asked for investigations of free-world people in the past and promised to search files for those occasions, though she couldn’t readily recall one. Wright, a death penalty opponent, frequent prison visitor and outspoken critic of prison practices, is likely to mount a defense that her arrest was retaliation for her criticism.


Tyler noted that Wright had once been prohibited from visting inmates for six months in 2005 because she snatched up something a guard wanted to see and took it back to her car. She also refused to allow a search of her vehicle. It has been speculated that Wright was trying to conceal money, but Tyler said that was only conjecture. In any case, she said, Wright’s behavior was “highly suspicious.” She said the tattooing equipment Wright seemed to possess  in May – the needles (they look something akin to elongated map pins) and a pin and tweezers hidden in a pen (Wright told a guard the tweezers were for doing beading and she forgot she had them) – were a concern because of the health hazard to inmates who share needles.


Tyler agreed that contraband was a frequent and continuous problem in prisons, despite an absence of frequent prosecutions. But she said many cases can’t be investigated, much less prosecuted, because it’s often impossible to track the source. She referred to tobacco, cell phones and other items dropped on prison property for pickup. She noted the Correction Department had won passage of legislation to allow punishment of inmates possessing cell phones because the advent of cheap disposable phones had made it all but impossible to track their buyers.


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