by David Koon
A contraband sweep at the Arkansas Department of Correction's Varner Unit early Saturday morning led to the seizure of several cell phones and an incident in which up to 20 inmates "jumped" four prison guards, sending them to the hospital and injuring one seriously enough that he was kept overnight and will require surgery to his face. The sweep came after the discovery of two large caches of cell phones and other contraband in recent weeks, one of which made it into the prison before being discovered.
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Dina Tyler, spokesperson for the ADC, said the melee came as 100 corrections officers were performing a 1 a.m. sweep of a 50-bed barracks at Varner prison — which, it should be noted, is a separate facility from Varner Supermax, which houses death row.
Tyler said that while a corrections officer was standing guard at the toilets during the search to keep inmates from flushing drugs, a number of prisoners attacked him. He was able to escape from the building unharmed, but four guards who rushed in after he raised an alarm were beaten by more than 20 inmates. While three of the guards suffered minor injuries and were treated and released from a local hospital, one had the bones around his eye broken by a punch or kick. The injury will require surgery to repair.
"We found during that sweep, I believe, seven cell phones," Tyler said. "In that one barracks, there were four, so that's probably the root of the cause." Tyler said that the Saturday night sweep also turned up four homemade shanks.
Tyler said that while the prison routinely performs contraband shakedowns, the Varner sweep Saturday morning "had a lot to do" with the recent discovery of two large caches of contraband cell phones.
On February 17, Tyler said, a bag containing 38 cell phones, tobacco, 3-1/2 ounces of marijuana, and various other contraband like rolling papers, batteries and toothbrushes was found inside Varner prison in a trash can near the kitchen, after a kitchen supervisor saw an inmate acting suspiciously near the can. The supervisor was questioned, but not disciplined over the incident, Tyler said.
On February 22, another bag containing tobacco, hair gel, smokeless tobacco and another 28 cell phones was found in a storm drain outside the prison. Tyler said that several employees and inmates have been questioned in the incident, but only the prisoner spotted near the trash can in the kitchen incident has been linked to the phones.
Providing an inmate with a cell phone or the use of a cell phone by an inmate is a class B felony. The ADC found 277 cell phones inside their prisons last year. They are a particular problem at Varner, Tyler said, because cell service and the way the prison is constructed makes it one of the few Arkansas corrections facilities in which prisoners can use cell phones while inside the building.
"Cell phones are obviously a hot commodity," she said. "If they want to do something dastardly, that's the way to do it. In fact, our last four escapes have been orchestrated with cell phones. That should tell you something."