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Arkansas prison officials warn of solitary cell shortage

Need for more stressed at board meeting by John Moritz | September 2, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Arkansas' prisons are in need of more solitary cells where the unruliest prisoners can be locked up, according to some of the state's top corrections officials.

Members of the Arkansas Board of Corrections, meeting in Russellville on Thursday, expressed the desire to build more of the single or two-man cells used for isolation, despite the Department of Correction having no immediate plans to do so.

State prisons director Wendy Kelley also said the construction of new facilities should focus on the highest-security cells.

Violent attacks at several east Arkansas prisons this summer have left one inmate dead, and injured other prisoners and guards. Kelley said the uptick in violence this summer -- an annual occurrence that tracks with sweltering weather -- appeared to be more pronounced than in years past.

Kelley, appearing before a regularly scheduled session of the Board of Corrections, was peppered with questions from members about how to respond to the violence.

"We need more ways to lock up troublemakers," said William "Dubs" Byers, a board member.

But federal corrections officials have cautioned that the use of solitary confinement should be rarely used and only for the most severe cases.

Meanwhile, inside the state, the prospect of new prison construction has been tempered by lawmakers concerned about the expense.

Last year, the department's $39 million request to add 576 beds, including 30 segregation beds, to the North Central Unit in Calico Rock was omitted from the state budget. On Thursday, the Board of Corrections approved the layout of a 60-bed addition to the Pine Bluff Unit, pending the approval of funding from a trust fund for prison construction.

The Pine Bluff Unit is a lower-security facility, and the proposed expansion will not include segregation beds.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, co-chairman of the Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council, said the idea of building more prisons was close to a "nonstarter" and said she would rather see laws passed that help people avoid prison.

But corrections officials, including board Chairman Benny Magness, have stressed the need for more capacity as the state's prison population continues to grow beyond its limits -- backing up inmates into county jails. The prison system houses about 16,000 inmates.

Byers, the board member who called for more solitary cells, said he was not ready to ask the state to build a new prison.

He said he "still had hope" that offenders could be diverted though attempts at parole and probation overhauls, while wondering if existing cells could be converted to keep the most hardened convicts away from the general population.

"On the face of it, I can see why there might be some reasons to have to segregate someone," Elliott said Friday, adding that she would have to do more research on the topic.

Most of Arkansas' prison beds are barracks-style, according to Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves.

That means inmates either sleep in bunks in open barracks, or in single or two-man cells that open into a common area throughout most of the day.

Restrictive housing refers to inmates housed on lock-down inside their cells for at least 22 hours a day.

Such restrictions can be given as a punishment -- called punitive isolation -- or as administrative order to keep inmates out of the general population for their own safety or the safety of others.

Each of Arkansas' prisons, except for work-release centers, has some form of segregated housing, Graves said. An up-to-date count of the total number of those beds was not provided by late Friday.

To keep isolated cells available for the most threatening inmates, Kelley has signed off on new policies to limit the use of confinement as a punishment for lesser offenses, such as shirking work duties.

"It does happen that more disciplinaries are written in the summertime, and that there are more fights in the summertime and that you get inmates refusing to go to work in the summertime, that's not unusual" Kelley said. "What's different this year is that we did change the restrictive housing policy, and if an inmate is not a threat to the unit, they cannot lock him up because he refuses to go to work."

Department of Correction policy limits the use of restrictive housing to 30-day periods, which are broken up by 48-hour breaks if the punishment exceeds a month. Inmates placed in restrictive housing can have the punishment reviewed at a disciplinary hearing, according to prison policy.

Under then-President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons starting in 2015. In a report released last year, the Justice Department recommended sharply curtailing the maximum length of solitary lock-ups to no more than 90 days.

"The overuse of restrictive housing -- also commonly called segregation, solitary confinement, or isolation -- in America's prisons and jails is an idea whose time has come," wrote Denise O'Donnell, the former director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, in the introduction to a follow-up 2016 report.

That Justice Department report noted that other states -- Colorado, Washington, New Mexico and Virginia -- have enacted policies to reduce the percentage of inmates housed in solitary confinement.

Metro on 09/02/2017

Print Headline: Prison officials note solitary cell shortage


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