VARNER UNIT: Five deaths this week prompt legislative meeting looking for answers.

The death of five inmates this week at the Varner Unit has prompted state Sen. Joyce Elliott to call a meeting of the legislative subcommittee on correctional institutions that she chairs, the Democrat-Gazette reports. Illicit drugs are suspected as the cause of death. The meeting of the Subcommittee on Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions will take place next Tuesday.

“The public is hearing about this constant drumbeat of unfortunate events at our state prison system,” Elliott told the D-G. “We must get answers.” Elliott has previously called for an external audit of the state’s prison system. “This is the beginning of not accepting excuses from anyone,” she said. 

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Several state prisons officials will testify on Tuesday, although not director Wendy Kelley, who will be traveling out of state.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections has had multiple cases of drug overdoses, many believed to involve K2, a synthetic form of marijuana that is difficult to detect and potentially deadly. Don’t miss Jacob Rosenberg’s deep dive into the issue for the Arkansas Times, from last October. Use of the drug has become widespread among inmates in the state: Rosenberg reported that in the first seven months of 2017, the ADC has recorded 707 incidents. The department would not confirm that K2 had lead to inmate deaths, but Rosenberg reported that it was believed to be linked to multiple deaths in Arkansas prisons, according to former prison employees, inmates and internal communication obtained by the Arkansas Times.

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In addition to the five deaths this week at Varner, a prison official also confirmed about a dozen inmates had been treated earlier in the week for drug reactions, though none required hospitalization.

Three deaths were reported at Varner on Monday: Marlon Miles, 41, serving 12 years for a range of charges including sexual assault, theft and weapons charges; Edward Morris, 34, serving five years for theft and sexual solicitation of a minor from Ashley County, and Stephen Kantzer, 37, serving 20 years on a variety of drug charges from Pulaski County.

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Two more died Wednesday morning: Donovan Cobbs, 26, serving a 10-year sentence for robbery from Sebastian County, and Joe Harris, 55, serving a life sentence from Pulaski County for robbery and other charges.

State prisons spokesman Solomon Graves told the D-G: “This week has been an anomaly. We will not accept that it will become the norm in our facility.”