Prison hearing -- short takes | Arkansas Blog

Prison hearing -- short takes

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News by Twitter. Interesting look at short-form journalism this afternoon. Channel 4, and CapSearch are providing multiple short updates from prison director Larry Norris' appearance before a legislative committee. (Also Brummett I now see.) It sounds like some legislators are giving the boss a little due diligence over recent foulups.

One particularly good observation was the fact that these incidents weren't discussed at Board of Correction meetings. Not serious enough, being left in your excrement to die? Full Board did not attend today's hearing.

Turnover rate in prison jobs said to be 32 percent. That's a problem, of course.

Looks like today's session moving toward a review of prisons by legislative Joint Performance Review Committee. That's better than the prison people reviewing themselves and saying "we're doing a great job but we need more money."

Gerard Matthews has the details on the jump.

The legislators at today's hearing were very concerned that these matters had not been taken up formally by the state Board of Correction.  Reps. Jonathan Dismang, Davy Carter and John Paul Burris as well as Sen. Kim Hendren expressed concerns. 

Norris discussed two instances that have made headlines recently: the case in which an inmate was left in a cell over the weekend and then found covered in his own feces, and the recent escape from the Cummins unit in which two lifers walked out the front gates of the prison, decked out in guard uniforms.  Norris did not address a recent shooting at the prison because the case had been sent to the prosecutor's office and he did not want discuss it.   

In the first case Norris said that 17 employees had been disciplined and two had been terminated.  He said he was embarrassed that it had happened and was not there to make excuses.  He said new measures would be put in place to keep a similar incident from  happening again.  Sen. Bobby Glover said that Norris had done a good job with corrections as a whole, but reiterated the need for an efficiently run prison system.

"I'm not here to speak for the governor," Glover said, "but he doesn't want his administration to get a black eye over a corrections issue." 

Norris said there was a policy in place to check on inmates over the weekend but an on-duty lieutenant had not performed his job properly.  "Policy is only as good as your weakest link," he said.

Rep. Carter asked Norris why this incident didn't come out until after the session was over and Norris replied simply that he reports to the state board, not the legislature.  "We might have to change that," Glover said.  Norris was quick to point out that this was only one of hundreds of on-going investigations.   

When pressed about the board's responsibility to take up such matters, Norris said, "I work for the board so I don't want to tell them what to do."

"I'm just a servant of the people, trying to do the Lord's work," Norris said at one point during the hearing.

As for the escapees, Norris said frankly, "We just got beat that day."  The guard uniforms were smuggled by one of the escapees who was part of a prison trusty program that allows inmates to work throughout the prison.  He slowly smuggled the uniforms using a dolly he used to carry his tools and then paid another prisoner to make the uniform belts and hand-cuff holders.  One of the escapees, Calvin Adams (the other was Jeffrey Grinder) then had someone on the outside drive a car into the parking lot, the one they used to escape. 

Norris said that complacency was the issue.  The last escape from the Cummins unit was in 1996.  Guards were not complicit, he said, just relaxed.  As a result 6 prison guards were fired, a loss of a combined 67 years of experience.  One officer was suspended. 

Sen. Jim Luker said that this was a good time for the legislature to take an inward look at themselves and think about how much funding is set aside for state correctional facilities.   

Rep. Steve Harrelson said during a break in the action that the issue needed to be taken up by a committee with subpoena power.

- Gerard Matthews

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