Sen. Elliott worries prison officials response to violence "just more punishment" | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Sen. Elliott worries prison officials response to violence "just more punishment"

Posted By on Wed, Oct 11, 2017 at 5:09 PM

  • Brian Chilson

Arkansas Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley and other ADC officials took questions from a legislative panel today after a series of recent violent incidents have caused alarm.

Yesterday, ADC announced — at the behest of Governor Hutchinson — an immediate increase in security measures and the creation of approximately 400 more isolation cells. ADC currently has 2,191 restrictive housing cells that can be used for administrative segregation or punitive isolation.

But, no nonpunitive steps to stop the violence were announced, frustrating Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), chairperson of the committee.

“I don’t feel that I know a whole lot more than I knew when we got started," she said after the meeting. "I get the impression that the response is just more punishment.

“It’s important to me to understand: Are there other things you’re doing? Are there other ways you [can] respond to the issues in the system? Or, is it simply to repeat the reason that they were there in the first place: more punishment, more punishment," she said. "I am certainly not suggesting that folks don’t deserve punishment in some instances ... [But] if we are carrying out the mission of punishment and rehabilitation, I’m not sure how that is rehabilitation.

What are we doing to correct behavior when obviously just the threat of punishment is not working? I don’t have a sense of that at all and that is frustrating," Elliott said.

click to enlarge ADC
  • ADC

Elliot said, leafing through a large number of pages bound describing number incidents since Aug. 17, that it is "concerning when you have this kind of tome of reports."

The incidents have included, according to Director Kelley:

*On July 14, there was an escape from the Delta Unit.

*On July 28 an inmate was injured at the Tucker Unit, who later died on Aug 10.

*On July 22, at the Tucker Max Unit, inmates escaped their recreation pen and shots were fired.

*On Aug. 7, three officers were held hostage at the Tucker Max Unit.

*On Sept. 14, windows were broken and some equipment was damaged at the Cummins Unit.

*On Sept. 28 there was assault by one inmate on one officer at the Tucker Max Unit.

*On the same day, Sep. 28, there was an assault of correctional officers at the Varner Unit.

Director Kelley also mentioned vacancies and further prosecution of inmates for crimes while inside ADC facilities as other future steps beyond the press release of action items from last night.

She said today she wanted to discuss the creation of a special prosecutor with statewide jurisdiction to handle cases inside ADC's facilities.

"Sometimes we take a second seat. And I would like to ask that someone be appointed to just handle the crimes that are committed at ADC. It would help us to be able to respond more quickly to the incidents as they occur," Kelley said. "I believe it would keep a full-time person busy."

Arkansas State Police officials told the panel that they’ve investigated this year to date:

* 42 cases of deaths (29 from all of 2016)

* 16 cases of inmate-on-inmate assault and battery (14 for all of 2016)

* 28 assault and battery cases by inmates on prison staff (29 for all of 2016)

Kelley also discussed what she described as a "tremendous number of vacancies" across ADC facilities. The department estimates 300 vacancies statewide among 4,700 positions. The prison had trouble retaining staff, Kelley said. In June of this year, ADC estimated that it hired 200 new officers, 50 of which they have already lost. Part of the problem, Kelley said, is that the remote locations of the prisons means that the ADC has "exhausted the labor pool" in some areas.

But, when questioned further, Kelley said that if fully staffed she was unsure if it would've affected the violent incidents.

"I can’t tell you that [staffing] did or didn’t," she said.

Kelley and the ADC have continued to push for increased prison space, specifically more isolation cells. They said that the implementation of Crisis Stabilization Centers — designed to house those who are mentally ill and give them treatment — that was approved by Hutchison would help free up space.

Elliott also pressed on the problem of contraband entering the facility, late reporting of inmate deaths and the isolation of inmate's while high on the drug K2 against the recommendation of doctors, all revealed in recent reporting by the Arkansas Times.

click to enlarge cover_story2-2.jpg

"I know that in any prison system contraband happens, but is there anything that we can say to the public," Elliott asked, "about what's happening to their loved ones as a result of the use of contraband to cause harm?"

Elliott continued saying that Kelley did not need to go "point by point" but she wanted a statement that this "really is not happening" or "will not continue to happen."

But, Kelley's response focused on how family members should not give inmate's money in a way that could help in purchasing contraband.

"To the public and family and friends of the inmates, I would say to not be caught up in any games. There are legal ways to put money on an inmate's books and if an inmate asked you to [give] money in an illegal manner," she said, "that's probably because it is part of a contraband scheme.

If I could control the world, which I can't, none of that would be happening; they wouldn't providing inmates with money on green dot cards or through another source because that leads to those issues," Kelley said.

She then said that the Department has posted signs about "the dangers of drugs coming into the facilities" and that they have "sent out fliers" to the inmate's about synthetic drugs like K2.

Kelley emphasized that they have stopped visitors coming in with K2 and focused on stopping family members coming in with the drug.

"I consider it Russian roulette when an inmate uses that," Kelley said, "because you never know what's in it. That's one reason why it's so hard to detect. But why a family, who cares about somebody, would bring it in is beyond me; unless it's just for the money."

But, she never mentioned the main source of K2 in prisons we found in our investigation: staff bringing in the drug and other contraband. Nor did she deny — as ADC did when we asked — that inmates are being isolated while high on K2, against the policies of their healthcare provider Correct Care Solutions LLC.

Elliott said she had received multiple calls from family members of inmates saying ADC had not informed them of medical emergencies concerning their loved ones and of potential wrongful isolations.

“They’re under our care, under our supervision. And family members have a right to ask us these questions. They have a right to know what’s happening to their loved ones who are imprisoned," Elliott said, after the hearing, noting that her questions about these problems went largely unanswered.

Elliott said she was frustrated by the accountability ADC officials show to the public and legislators.

“When you come to the table,” Elliott said, “if it were [me], I would’ve had something to say about what [is] happening opposed to just, ‘Let me answer your questions.’ I can’t imagine, for example, showing up at a press conference and not explain — [to not] have some open explanatory remarks about what’s happening and what I’ve been doing and how I expect to go forward."

"I think that’s lacking," she said.

“When I ask the question, ‘Is the system working?’ I think that’s a seminal question we need to answer. I don’t see that [the system] is [working]," she said.

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