Governor and AG call out Board of Corrections for not putting more people in prison faster

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called an unusual press conference Friday morning to pressure the independent Arkansas Board of Corrections to do her bidding more quickly.

A team of legislators and law enforcement officers stood with Sanders and state Attorney General Tim Griffin as they accused the corrections board of stonewalling on a proposed temporary expansion of prison capacity. Sanders and others said corrections board members voted last week against opening up hundreds of temporary prison beds, indicating they are soft on crime. The failed status quo will not continue as long as I am governor,” she said.

Griffin went a step further. “The actions of the Board of Corrections make Arkansans in this room and all around this state less safe,” he said, before calling for “constitutional and statutory change” to narrow the corrections board’s authority.

Reached by phone Friday morning, Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness declined to comment except to say that he had no idea the governor was holding a press conference in his (dis)honor.

One might assume, based on the tone of Friday’s press conference, that the corrections board is a cabal of prison abolitionists hellbent on blocking the governor’s agenda. In fact, Magness was appointed to the board in 1999 by Sanders’ dad, former Gov. Mike Huckabee. And Magness served on Sanders’ law enforcement coalition during her gubernatorial campaign just last year.

Arkansas Department of Correction
Benny Magness

Even more confusingly, an audio recording of the Nov. 6 meeting indicates that board members were in fact open to adding the temporary beds, but a vote on the issue wasn’t scheduled for that day.

Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne was at the Nov. 6 meeting to make the request for the temporary expansion on behalf of Joe Profiri, Sanders’ secretary of corrections.

Arkansas Department of Corrections spokesperson Dina Tyler provided the text of Payne’s request: 

The County Jail Backup in Arkansas as of November 3, 2023, for both Male and Female inmates was 1578 sentenced to ADC and 308 to the 90 Day Program for a total of 1886 inmates. My goal is to provide some relief to the county jails that are burdened with inmates that have been sentenced to ADC. I am requesting permission to add the following temporary beds to the Division of Correction:

  1. Ouachita River Correctional Unit – Utilizing Gymnasium                                         60 beds
  2. Ester Unit -Adding beds to 2,3,4, and 5 Barracks                                                     124 beds
  3. North Central Unit -Adding 5 beds to Barracks 1-14                                                70 beds
  4. McPherson Unit-Adding 244 beds in vacant PIE Building                                        244 beds
  5. Max Unit-Reactivating 124 beds at Re-Entry Center                                               124 beds

Total Additional: 622 beds

In a seemingly cordial exchange with Payne, Magness can be heard saying that Profiri had already set up some of these new beds, and that “he put the cart before the horse” by taking action before a board vote.

One board member can be heard saying, “I don’t think we should be making a motion to make room for people we don’t have staff to supervise.” Another board member pointed out that the bed expansion issue was listed on the agenda as an update, not a vote.

The agenda says only “New Bed Space / County Jail Backup Update.” The board’s bylaws require them to suspend normal rules if they want to add a vote to the agenda.

Ultimately, the board voted to suspend the rules to allow a vote on bed additions at the Ouachita River and North Central units, which they approved. But the did not suspend the rules to allow a vote on adding beds at Ester, McPherson and the Maximum Security units.

“Those two are approved. We need more information on the others to approve them,” Magness said at the meeting.

This seemingly minor delay was inflammatory enough to some Republican lawmakers and elected officials that they called a press conference at the state Capitol to publicly skewer corrections board members.

Flanked by a small crowd of sheriffs, county judges and legislators, Sanders, Griffin and state Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) touted their Protect Arkansas Act passed earlier this year. The new law takes parole off the table for people convicted of serious crimes and extends prison sentences for felons. These changes are expected to add more than 1,000 inmates to the state’s prison roster. The law also greenlights the addition of 3,000 new prison beds.

Arkansas already has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the country — a per capita rate of 942 per 100,000 people that greatly exceeds that of all other democracies, including the broader United States. And it’s not working. Arkansas’s crime rate is also the fifth highest in the country.

Facts like these haven’t deterred conservative Arkansas politicians from pushing to put more people behind bars.

Board of Corrections members have “been against the Protect Act since the beginning,” Sanders said Friday. “It’s time for the Board of Corrections to do what’s needed to protect our people. That’s why I’m calling on the board to convene an emergency meeting to approve the additional 500 beds they denied last week.”

Attorney General Griffin suggested that if the Board of Corrections puts the brakes on any new prison beds, it should be stripped of power.

“There’s no one that is able to intelligently with a straight face argue that we don’t need more prison capacity,” Griffin said, then called board chair Magness out by name. Magness should not be chairman any longer if he does not support boosting Arkansas prison capacity pronto, he said.

Magness, a longtime Baxter County sheriff, seems to have fallen out of favor with the Huckabee dynasty. The governor’s office sent out out a press release Friday afternoon that shot more vitriol Magness’ way.

The release quotes Griffin as saying, “Chairman Magness is a defender of the status quo and as such publicly testified against the Protect Act. He failed in the legislature, where the Protect Act passed both chambers by a supermajority. Now he is using the Board to impede reform of the corrections system. For someone who claims to support law enforcement, the chairman’s actions indicate otherwise. He opposes solutions that would make us safer and help law enforcement; he’s part of the problem. The Board’s failure is territorial bureaucracy at its worst and is a clarion call for reform.”

Other prominent Arkansas Republicans quoted in the release inaccurately claimed that corrections board members voted against opening more beds.

“It’s a complete disregard for public safety and the job of the Board of Corrections to vote down Secretary Profiri’s plan to add hundreds of new beds in our existing facilities. This Governor, Attorney General, and Legislature has made clear that public safety is a top priority and the Board of Corrections is handicapping our ability to deliver what the voters of Arkansas have overwhelmingly supported by electing us,” Senate President Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) said.

You can read the full release here.

Contacted Friday afternoon, Gazaway said he was not aware that the additional prison beds weren’t officially scheduled for a vote on last week’s meeting agenda.

“My understanding is the board could have taken up the request if they would have been so inclined, and they chose not to. Given the need for additional bed space, the secretary and leadership at the Department of Corrections were concerned that they’re not treating this as seriously as they should,” he said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote to Jimmy Gazaway that was actually said by Tim Griffin.

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