Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders calls on prison board to add more beds

FILE — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is shown in this Nov. 16, 2022 file photo. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
FILE — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is shown in this Nov. 16, 2022 file photo. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday called for the the state Board of Corrections to hold an “emergency meeting” after it rejected part of a request to expand capacity at state prisons.

Sanders called a news conference at the state Capitol to call out the Board for refusing to approve most of Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri’s “thoughtful, informed and desperately needed request,” to add 622 beds at state facilities.

“We have the space. We have the resources. We have the personnel. All that stands between us and a safer, stronger Arkansas is bureaucratic red tape,” Sanders said. “It’s time for the Board of Corrections to do what is needed to protect our people.”

During its Nov. 6 meeting, the board approved adding 60 temporary beds at the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern and 70 at the North Central Unit in Calico Rock. However, the board rejected the request to add a combined 492 beds at the Ester Unit in Pine Bluff, the McPherson Unit in Newport and the Maximum Security Unit in Jefferson County. The Board of Corrections, through an executive assistant, declined to comment on Friday.

The request for additional bed space was meant to reduce the backup of inmates in county jails waiting for space in state prisons to open up.

Members of the board had concerns that some of the prisons were already overcrowded and that the proposed 622-bed expansion would not serve county jails’ long-term needs. One board member said the McPherson Unit had a high number of staff vacancies. However, in a statement Profiri countered some of those claims, saying, “We have space, we have beds and will make room for criminals who belong in prison.”

As of Nov. 3, 1,886 inmates, the vast majority sentenced to the Department of Corrections, were in county jails waiting for space in state prisons to open up, according to Dexter Payne, director of the Division of Correction.

The Ouachita River Unit will add beds in a gymnasium currently not in use. At the North Central Unit, 14 barracks will add five beds each.

Attorney General Tim Griffin put the blame on Board Chairman Benny Magness, who he said was “a defender of the status quo.”

“For someone who claims to support law enforcement, the chairman’s actions indicate otherwise,” Griffin said in a news release. “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.”

Magness, reached by phone Friday evening, declined to comment.

Sanders and Griffin said the board’s refusal to add the number of temporary beds requested by the Corrections Department is a rejection the Protect Arkansas Act, an expansive criminal justice law that will require offenders to serve most, if not all, of their sentences in prison. Beginning on Jan. 1, those convicted of 18 of the most violent felonies in the state code, such as murder, will have to serve 100% of their sentences.

In March, Sanders announced plans for a $470 million, 3,000 bed corrections facility. When asked about an update on its construction, the governor said her November request to the Board of Corrections was a needed stop-gap measure that will provide temporarily relief to county jails while the state is in the early stages of building a new prison.