Suing inmates call Pulaski County jail unsafe

They link woes to staff shortage

Twenty-three inmates in the Pulaski County jail sued the jail, Sheriff "Doc" Holladay and five jail officials and employees on Tuesday in federal court, alleging they are being kept locked in their cells simply because the jail isn't properly staffed.

The inmates, led by Derrick Allen, Marquis Hunt and Randal Randolph, say they want their case to be designated as a class-action lawsuit so they can jointly pursue claims of civil-rights violations, for which they seek monetary damages.

"We are in general population but treated as if we are in [administrative segregation]," claims each identical hand-written, pro-se lawsuit that contains the names of all 23 inmates. Copies of the same lawsuit were filed individually on each inmate's behalf, but because they were all filed as related cases, they were all assigned to the same judge -- U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr.

A motion for a preliminary injunction attached to each complaint states that the inmates are all housed in the jail's R Unit, which holds up to 70 or 80 inmates and is connected by a door to the S Unit, which holds about the same number of inmates.

"Due to lack of staff, the door that connects the units, known as the Link Door, is left open," the suit states, noting "this forces the deputy working the units to watch both units."

"One deputy watching at least 140 to 150 inmates is a violation of not only federal law and county policy, but this is cruel and unusual punishment," which is prohibited under the 8th Amendment, the lawsuit states. It alleges that the practice of having one deputy oversee so many inmates, along with blind spots in the unit because of a lack of cameras, creates the potential for violent or sexual acts to go unnoticed.

While inmates in other general-population units are allowed to be out of their cells to make telephone calls, watch television, exercise, shower and partake in other privileges, "we are forced to remain in our cells [for] hours and hours at a time" because of a staff shortage, the 23 inmates allege.

"This lock-down prevents inmates from contacting their lawyers, bondsman and family," the suit complains. "Inmates have to give up cell clean-up in order to come out of their cells. Also, there is only one security camera in the unit, which is only above the deputy station. Inmates' safety is at risk due to blind spots in the unit."

When the inmates try to seek help, the suit alleges, "they are threatened, maced and placed in the hole."

The suit alleges that many jailers refuse to work in the unit because of the "heavy workload." And it notes that "the speakers in the cells don't work, so we cannot get in touch with the unit deputy unless we beat on the door."

But beating on a cell door or yelling is considered disorderly conduct, the inmates said, demanding a federal investigation.

Neither Lt. Cody Burk, the sheriff's office spokesman, nor Maj. Mike Sylvester, chief of detention, could be reached for comment about the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon.

But in late September, the sheriff's office acknowledged that many spaces outside the inmates' housing blocks aren't covered by cameras. In response, the Pulaski County Quorum Court voted 14-0 to approve the sheriff's office's request for $400,000 from the Public Safety Reserve Fund.

Chief Deputy Mike Lowery told a reporter that he needed the money to replace old security cameras and add new ones, as "the next step in our priorities of making the jail safe" for both inmates and employees.

Maj. Matthew Briggs said at the time that about 375 cameras were in operation in the jail. He said that keeps most of the inner jail under camera surveillance, but noted that footage can be spotty.

"If something happens in the middle" of a hallway, he acknowledged, a camera "isn't going to give you a very good picture."

He said that with the appropriated money, the jail would replace its older analog security cameras with digital models, move some cameras to new spots and install about 175 additional cameras.

Earlier last year, the jail finished installing guardrails on the second floor to thwart suicide attempts, which was a $1.2 million project paid for over two years by a $5 fee on people found guilty of misdemeanor and traffic offenses.

The inmates contend their civil rights are violated both by jail staff members and by the jail's policies.

"On a daily basis, security is at risk," they say.

Information for this article was contributed by Emma Pettit for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 08/22/2018