Official: Prisoners escaped solitary recreation areas
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Two disturbances at an Arkansas prison — including one that involved three officers being held hostage by inmates — began when prisoners managed to escape solitary fenced-in areas during their recreation breaks, the state’s top correction official told lawmakers Monday.
Correction Department Director Wendy Kelley said last week’s incident at the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker began when two inmates escaped from their solitary recreation cages and followed two officers escorting another inmate inside. Several inmates held the officers for three hours, after taking their keys and a Taser, before releasing them and surrendering.
An incident at the same prison on July 22 that prompted a guard to fire warning shots into the air also involved inmates escaping the recreation cages, the department has previously said.
“The issue that has to be addressed is in the recreation pens themselves,” Kelley told members of a Legislative Council subcommittee. The council is the Legislature’s primary governing body when lawmakers are not in session.
The chain-link single person recreation cages are identical to those at another facility in east Arkansas that the department was already replacing over similar concerns.
The department plans to ask the Board of Corrections to approve the plan to replace the ones at the Tucker Max unit. In the meantime, the department said it has taken temporary steps to strengthen the cages at the unit, along with adding more security measures during recreational periods.
“We have done some targeted welding at the joints of the existing pens to reduce the risk for that separation, but that just gets us to the point of replacement,” Correction Department spokesman Solomon Graves said.
The department wants to replace the pens with a combination of cinder block and a heavier grade metal that isn’t as susceptible to separating as the current cages, he said.
Both incidents are being investigated by the department and Arkansas State Police, which are also investigating the death last week of an inmate from an assault in July at a separate facility. The Board of Corrections is also conducting a separate investigation into last week’s disturbance.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he expects disciplinary action to be taken against employees over the incidents, saying that some procedures weren’t followed. The department has not said how the inmates in last week’s disturbances were able to overpower the officers and obtain a Taser. The inmates in last week’s disturbance have been moved to another facility.
Kelley said the prisoners in both disturbances weren’t trying to escape Tucker Max.
“Both of those incidents were because they wanted to assault someone,” she said.
Kelley said an overhaul of the state’s pay plan has helped cut some of the vacancies the prison system faces, and the department was seeking approval to increase hazardous duty pay for officers. About a quarter of the security positions at the Tucker Max unit were vacant at the time of last week’s incident.
A lawmaker said she hoped the review would look at staffing as well as whether the department is able to respond quickly to physical issues such as the pen’s fencing.
“I hope a part of their investigation will result in some auditing in the environment looking forward and not just wait until we’re reactive until something happens,” Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott, the panel’s co-chairwoman, said after the meeting.
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