On nabbing Betsey UPDATE | Arkansas Blog

Friday, August 14, 2009

On nabbing Betsey UPDATE

Posted By on Fri, Aug 14, 2009 at 9:12 AM

I talked further today with Dina Tyler, state prisons spokeswoman, about criminal investigations of people caught with prohibited items at state prison units. Former Clinton chief of staff Betsey Wright was charged this week with 51 felony counts for attempting to bring prohibited items into the Varner unit, including 48 tattoo needles in a closed Doritos bag. The other charges stem from a pocketknife, tweezers and a razorblade found in a clear plastic bag of items Wright gave to a security screener for checking before entering the prison.

Tyler said from October 2008 through July of this year, she'd found 170 cases of criminal investigations requested into contraband, but most were for inmate violations. Tobacco, alcohol, weapons and even cell phones frequently turn up in inmate possession.

Dating back to August last year, Tyler has found four episodes in which State Police investigations were requested of "free-world" people. They were:

A woman who dropped off 30 packs of tobacco at the East Arkansas Regional Unit in January; the June 6 discovery at the Pine Bluff unit of a visitor with a .380 pistol in her purse and marijuana in her car; a .32-caliber pistol found wrapped in a white rag and hidden in a brush pile by someone who’d placed it there in advance of a vehicle checkpoint Feb. 14;  the discovery Aug. 3 at the Maximum Security Unit of whiskey and tobacco in a juice container that was in a trash bag the mother of an inmate had placed in a trash can in the reception building.

Tyler said she did not know whether charges were filed in these cases. I’ve asked the State Police to check.

I've also asked Tyler for: 1) records of staff members criminally prosecuted for contraband offenses; 2) records of visitors who’ve had visiting privileges restricted or terminated, but not  been subject of criminal investigations, for contraband.

I'd further ask generally where the Correction Department gets off in playing for private legislative entertainment tapes of phone calls between inmates and the outside world. (Tyler took pains in an interview with the Democrat-Gazette Associated Press today to disclose it had done this in the case of Wright calls.) It is a legitimate law enforcement function for the prison to monitor inmate phone calls and to share potential law violations with law enforcement authorities. Legislators -- however select they may be viewed in the eyes of prison officials -- are not law enforcement officers. It's a violation of  privacy, not to mention creepy, to let them listen in on private calls. Even a 2004 attorney general opinion agrees. But welcome to the Arkansas Correction Department. Let it be a warning to those who might dare, as Wright has, to criticize its methods.



A State Police spokesman said a review of their records indicated no criminal charges had been filed in the three cases referred for prosecution for prosecution in the Pine Bluff area. He hadn't pinned down information on the tobacco referral in East Arkansas. He said, however, that all of the three were “active” cases in which investigative case files had been presented to the prosecuting attorney in Pine Bluff.


Dina Tyler alsosearched department records today and came up with the following additional information.


In the last year, ending today, the department suspended or terminated 7,109 visitors, most for failure to provide proper identification or for arrest warrants and the like.


Of those, 52 were suspended or terminated for contraband-related reasons. 33 had marijuana in cars at checkpoints; 2 refused search; 3 had unacceptably large amonts of money; three were suspected of dropping off tobacco; 6 had visited inmates found in possession of tobacco or money after a visit; 5 brough in unspecified contraband; three were terminated for reasons Tyler couldn’t determine, and, at the East Arkansas unit, two were suspended for trying to introduce tobacco and those two were referred to the local sheriff for criminal investigation.


From October until now, Tyler identified six correctional officers fired for introducing contraband, mostly tobacco, but also marijuana and cell phones. All were referred for criminal investigation, Tyler said. She didn’t know if charges were filed.


Tyler did identify nine cases in which criminal charges resulted from contraband. All were in correctional facilities in Newport – one for men and one for women. All involved tobacco. In all nine cases, those bringing contraband received suspended sentences. She suggested that a lighter caseload from units there might explain a greater tendency to bring cases than in the area of the major prison units near Pine Bluff.


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