Arkansas Advocate
The Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction Brian Chilson

Formerly incarcerated individuals and prison reform advocates told lawmakers Monday that inadequate mental health services is one of the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ biggest problems.

LeDeana Biddle, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Arkansas Department of Corrections Family Support, was one of a dozen people who told the Joint Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs that the treatment of the state’s inmates must improve.

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“It is no secret that mental illness is prevalent within our incarcerated population, yet our system is ill-equipped to respond to these needs,” Biddle said. “Instead of rehabilitation, we witness the exacerbation of mental health conditions, fueling a vicious cycle that benefits no one.”

Division of Corrections Director Dexter Payne said the agency’s mental health staff sees any inmate who asks for those services. If inmates have only been seen once, they may not have asked.

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“And I think that’s a concern,” Payne said. “If you ask to be seen, you should be seen, and I’m not aware of people that have asked to be seen by mental health and aren’t. I get phone calls all the time saying, ‘My family needs this, my family needs that,’ and we immediately have somebody go see them.”

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said that was not what he experienced when he contacted DOC on behalf of someone concerned about an incarcerated family member who was struggling with his mental health.

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“I got ahold of the Department of Corrections and was told there was absolutely nothing to worry about,” Clark said. “Two weeks later, he took his own life.”

DOC Chief of Staff Lindsey Wallace said the department currently pays for mental health staff across the state, but it’s working to improve by folding the department’s mental health component into a new medical services contract.

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“Just like everything else, we are doing the best that we can with mental health physicians, but we struggle given the rate of pay for state jobs with that,” Wallace said.

In addition to mental health, members of the public aired grievances with the committee regarding delayed medical care leading to long-term health issues, the cost of inmate phone calls, limited visitation hours and transparency issues, with several people expressing frustration that DOC doesn’t respond to their inquiries.

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Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, said he’s spoken with the department about a number of issues brought to his attention and they’ve been very responsive. Berry also said he’s a “tremendous supporter” of the department.

“These people are incarcerated, they broke the law, and prison is not supposed to be a great place to be and things are going to happen,” Berry said. “I know that the staff at our prisons and the secretary is holding people accountable and they’re making sure that our inmates are well taken care of.”

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Debbie Baker, who testified on behalf of her incarcerated son who has mental issues, said inmates should not all be treated the same.

“We’re here for the protection of our loved ones, and yeah, they committed crimes, but they’re not the scum of the earth, or at least not all of them are, and they shouldn’t be treated as such,” Baker said.

Public safety was a priority for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the 2023 legislative session, which included the passage of the Protect Act. Among other things, the new law removes the possibility of parole for those convicted of the most serious crimes, which could increase the need for more prisons.

Sanders has supported prison expansion, and last month criticized the Arkansas Board of Corrections for failing to approve a request to temporarily expand the prison system’s capacity by 622 beds. Chairman Benny Magness said the board made the decision because of severe staffing shortages and existing crowding.

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Heather Imboden, a former corporal at North Central Unit in Calico Rock, echoed those sentiments Monday when she said building more prisons is not the answer.

“The biggest issue we have is overcrowding and understaffing,” she said. “Understaffing is a safety issue not only for the inmates, but for the officers.”

Officials said Monday that staffing shortages are a nationwide problem, with the Arkansas Department of Corrections experiencing a 40% vacancy rate.

Protect Act sponsor, Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, suggested both mental health and overcrowding issues in prisons could be alleviated by expanding space at the state hospital, and requested data comparing the cost of housing people in those facilities.

“Might not have to have as much prison capacity if you had state hospital capacity, which quite frankly, is probably where some of these offenders would be most well suited to be housed,” he said.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said he hoped Monday’s testimony would compel lawmakers to make an investment in mental health services for the state’s incarcerated population.

“I think that the department, as far as mental health goes, does about as well as they can do with the resources that they have been provided,” Tucker said. “So to me, it’s less on the department to step up to the plate and provide those resources for mental health, and it’s more on the state legislature to provide those resources.”

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