LITTLE ROCK — The back-to-back assaults on guards by inmates at two Arkansas prisons — following a violent summer that has included prisoners taking corrections officers hostage — are making it harder to dismiss the incidents as part of the dangers the prison system manages on a daily basis. It also ensures further scrutiny from frustrated lawmakers and a governor demanding answers on what’s causing the disturbances.
Within a span of less than three hours on Thursday, three guards were assaulted by inmates at two separate facilities in what the Correction Department has called apparently unrelated attacks. One guard was sent to the hospital after being assaulted by an inmate at the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker. Two and a half hours later, two guards at the Varner Unit were hospitalized after being assaulted by several inmates. Several prisoners who barricaded themselves inside a barracks at Varner after the assault were also hospitalized after guards used nonlethal force to remove them.
The assaults follow two other disturbances at the Maximum Security Unit — also known as Tucker Max — in recent months. In August, several inmates held three guards hostage after snatching their keys and a Taser and a month before that, a guard fired warning shots into the air after two guards and an inmate were attacked there. The attacks are also deepening concerns among lawmakers who had already said they wanted answers on what’s caused the spate of violence.
"We’re getting to the point where we get up and wait for the news to find out what the next incident is going to be," said Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott, who co-chairs a legislative committee that oversees the correction system. Elliott and Democratic Rep. David Fielding, who also co-chairs the committee, have said they want the panel to hold a hearing to discuss the recent disturbances.
The violence hasn’t been limited to Tucker Max and Varner. Other incidents that have prompted investigations include a disturbance at the Cummins Unit where inmates broke windows and damaged surveillance equipment as well as the fatal assault in July of an inmate at the Tucker Unit — which is separate from the Tucker Max facility. State Police in August said they had more than two dozen open cases involving assault or battery by inmates on guards or fellow inmates, though it’s unclear what the latest number of open investigations is after the recent disturbances.
The scant details on the disturbances are so far offering few clues on the answers available. Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley has told lawmakers that the July and August incidents at Tucker Max began when inmates managed to escape solitary fenced-in areas during their recreation breaks. The department has said it will replace the chain-link recreation areas and has taken temporary steps to strengthen the cages at the unit, along with adding more security measures during recreational periods.
The department also won legislative approval last month to raise hazard pay at four of its facilities — including the Varner and Cummins units — a move that correction officials said was aimed at filling a high number of vacant positions at those prisons.
It’s unclear whether those steps have been enough. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he expects disciplinary action to be taken against Tucker Max employees after the July and August incidents there, saying some procedures were not followed. But he’s also continued to say he has confidence in Kelley, who he backed for the top prisons job when he took office in 2015. Hutchinson said Friday the latest attacks caused him great concern.
"The multiple incidences in the past few months of violence indicate there is a need for additional safeguards," Hutchinson said in a statement released by his office. "I have met with (Department of Correction) Director Wendy Kelley and Board of Corrections’ Chairman Benny Magness, and I have asked Director Kelley for an action plan with options to address the problem and to ensure order and safety in the prison system. Director Kelley and her team have my full support as they address this challenge."
Questions remain about what those safeguards could be, and just how much further Hutchinson’s support will go.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo