Arkansas prison board votes to suspend corrections secretary; he vows to keep working

Joe Profiri, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, speaks at the state Capitol in this Jan. 30, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
Joe Profiri, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, speaks at the state Capitol in this Jan. 30, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

The Arkansas Board of Corrections voted to suspend the secretary of the Department of Corrections with pay on Thursday, then filed a lawsuit against him and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders challenging two laws that the board says are infringing on its authority under the state constitution to manage the department.

The Corrections Department secretary, Joe Profiri, pledged to remain at work regardless of the board’s decision.

“I’m reporting to my office now and tomorrow I’m going back to work,” Profiri told reporters who had huddled around him Thursday inside the small conference room at the department’s headquarters in North Little Rock where the board had met and voted. He said he answers to Sanders and that he would continue to do his job until he hears differently from her.

Board Chairman Benny Magness, however, sent a letter Thursday to Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin stating that Profiri is “prohibited from entry onto any property operated, owned, or leased by the Arkansas Board of Corrections or its subordinate departments and divisions,” except for his state-provided housing.

“Mr. Profiri is also barred from accessing any Board technology resources,” the letter continued. “In the event Mr. Profiri disobeys this directive, the matter will be referred to appropriate law enforcement.”

[DOCUMENT: Read Magness' letter »]

In the lawsuit that was filed Thursday afternoon in Pulaski County Circuit Court, the board is challenging the constitutionality of two acts that were passed by the General Assembly earlier this year — Acts 185 and 659 — which the board says Profiri and Sanders are relying on to circumvent the board’s authority.

“This is an action for a declaratory judgement that the Challenged Legislation is illegal … and otherwise unconstitutional,” the complaint states. “This action also seeks a permanent injunction restraining Defendants from enforcing the Challenged Legislation.”

The lawsuit also seeks a temporary order blocking the challenged laws from being enforced while the suit is pending.

In addition to Sanders and Griffin, the Department of Corrections is named as a defendant.

Profiri criticized

After the 3-2 vote Thursday afternoon to suspend Profiri, board member William “Dubs” Byers, while looking directly at Profiri, accused him of showing “public disdain” for the board’s authority.

“What we contemplate today is no small matter,” Byers said. “The secretary has made it clear in public and in private that he works exclusively for the governor and not the board.”

Magness said after the meeting that Profiri’s “attitude and unwillingness to work with the board” are what led to Thursday’s vote to suspend him.

Profiri was nominated by Sanders in January to head the Department of Corrections. The board confirmed the selection later that same month.

In recent weeks, relations between the board and the two people named in the lawsuit, as well as Griffin, have deteriorated.

One reason is the board’s refusal to open as many temporary beds at state prisons as Profiri has requested.

After the board balked at granting the number of beds Profiri asked for during the past two public meetings, Sanders ordered Profiri to add the beds without board approval. She contended last week that Profiri has the full authority to add beds under Arkansas Code 24-43-403, which states that the “executive head of the Department of Corrections shall be the Secretary of the Department of Corrections.”

In his letter to Sanders and Griffin on Thursday, Magness conveyed hope that all sides could still work together on the bed issue.

“Of course, the Board is concerned about Mr. Profiri’s addition of new prison beds to our existing overcrowded and understaffed facilities,” he wrote. “While we are committed to resolving our differences in the courtroom, the immediate physical safety of our facilities cannot be overshadowed by ongoing litigation. We urgently request the opportunity to meet with your office for the purpose of working together to address our staffing shortages.”

Outside counsel

Tensions between the board and two of the highest-profile elected officials in Arkansas were exacerbated last Friday when the board voted 3-2 to hire outside counsel, something Griffin demanded the board reverse by the end of the week. In a letter addressed to Magness on Monday, Griffin stated that the board violated state law by going into executive session to hire outside counsel and making such a hire without his approval.

The board hired Little Rock attorney Abtin Mehdizadegan to serve as its counsel on employment and hiring matters. Mehdizadegan was the attorney who wrote the complaint that was filed as part of Thursday’s civil action.

[DOCUMENT: Read Arkansas Board of Corrections' complaint »]

Prior to moving into executive session to discuss whether to suspend Profiri, the board voted 4-1 to direct Mehdizadegan to “engage in and take all legal action and [seek] resolution” of the conflicts the board has been having with Profiri and the governor.

Board member Lee Watson made that motion and added that the board wasn’t seeking damages in its legal action.

“All we’re asking for is clarification,” Watson said.

The complaint was stamped as being filed at 3:25 p.m. Thursday — less than an hour after the special meeting was adjourned.

“I have profound respect for the board standing up for the constitution and fulfilling their oaths of office,” Mehdizadegan said during a phone interview Thursday night. “All Arkansans benefit when government actors do the right thing.”

Griffin still contends that the board violated the law with its decision to hire Mehdizadegan in executive session.

“We are reviewing the board’s actions, but remain troubled that they continue to violate the law regarding compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and the unauthorized hiring of an outside counsel,” Griffin wrote in an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Thursday night.

Higher authority

The lawsuit says Acts 185 and 659 violate the state constitution’s Amendment 33, which was was ratified in 1942. The amendment prohibits the Legislature and governor from making certain changes to boards or commissions that manage or control the state’s charitable, penal or correctional institutions and institutions of higher learning.

Act 185 requires the secretary of corrections to serve at the pleasure of the governor while Act 659 will require the directors of the Department’s Divisions of Correction and Community Correction to serve at the pleasure of the secretary. Previously, both served under the auspices of the board. Act 185 went into effect in July while the parts of Act 659 challenged in the suit will go into effect Jan. 1.

“By preventing the Secretary of Corrections and the Directors of the Divisions of Correction and Community Correction from serving at the pleasure of and thus remaining accountable and responsible to the Board of Corrections, the Challenged Legislation fundamentally usurps the Board’s general supervisory power and control over the Department of Corrections,” the lawsuit says.

It says the laws violate Amendment 33 by “transferring the power to manage and direct the institution from the Board of Corrections to the Governor of Arkansas and to the Secretary of Corrections.”

“There is a good reason the good people of Arkansas passed Amendment 33,” Byers said at the board’s meeting on Thursday.

When a board is in place to oversee correctional institutions, Byers continued, there needs to be transparency and stability and not a structure “run by politicians who can change the system every four or eight years.”

At the start of the meeting, Magness indicated that the courts would ultimately have to decide who has the ultimate jurisdiction of the state’s prison system.

He said the “impasse” the board was having with the governor and Legislature would likely require a ruling from a “higher authority.”

On Nov. 20, after Sanders first went public with her accusation of the board’s refusal to add adequate prison beds, Magness wrote a letter to Sanders and Griffin insisting that he understood the call for more beds, but said the safety of residents and staff, as well as inmates, was the board’s responsibility.

Sanders took to X on Thursday, a couple of hours after the lawsuit was filed, to convey her support of Profiri and continue her criticism of the board.

“I stand firmly behind Secretary Profiri and his leadership of the Department of Corrections,” she stated. “The Board of Corrections would rather continue the failed catch and release policies instead of working with the Secretary to make our state safer, stronger, and more secure. I will continue to do everything in my power to keep Arkansans safe.”

Magness’ letter, meanwhile, urged Sanders to start thinking of naming Profiri’s replacement.

“In the interim, the Board of Corrections will name an acting Executive in Charge of the Department of Corrections pending the Governor’s nomination of a new candidate for Secretary of Corrections, the Senate’s confirmation, and the Board’s ultimate approval,” Magness wrote. “Please submit your new nomination at your earliest convenience.”

Magness ended Thursday’s meeting on an optimistic note.

“I look forward to this being resolved,” he said. “I think this board will work cooperatively with the administration, with the governor, with the Legislature and with everyone because we care about the State of Arkansas and the safety of the State of Arkansas. … We also care about the safety of our employees and the safety of our inmates.”

This story has been updated. It was originally published at 3:59 p.m. under the headline "BREAKING: Arkansas prison board votes to suspend corrections secretary Joe Profiri; he vows to keep working."

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