After feuding with the governor and now-suspended corrections secretary for weeks, the Arkansas Board of Corrections put out notice Thursday evening that they were calling for help from the National Guard to staff state prisons.
The governor responded with a crack-of-dawn press release Friday to say that corrections board Director Benny Magness should resign.
It’s all puff and frippery, showboating of little consequence since there’s zero chance Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will send troops to man the cells or that Magness, on the corrections board since Sanders’ dad appointed him 28 years ago, will step down.
But this latest brinkmanship highlights how deeply ridiculous our state government has become, with a governor who eschews the unglamorous grunt work of governing in favor of wacky press conferences, mean-spirited pronouncements and finger pointing. Always the finger pointing.
With few Democrats in power to kick around, Sanders is forced to go after the likes of a Republican longtime Baxter County sheriff who served on her own election committee. Magness’ unwillingness to ignore laws and regulations in service to the Sanders administration’s ideological campaign to lock up more people for longer has him now squarely on the outs.
Here’s the dispatch from the Arkansas Department of Corrections that went out Thursday evening:
Benny Magness, Chairman of the Board of Corrections, has respectfully asked Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders to activate National Guard members to help fill in staffing gaps within the Division of Correction. More specifically, the request seeks 40 Guard members for the Maximum Security and Tucker Units. Magness also requested an additional 98 National Guard members to be used at prisons where the vacancy rate of entry level correctional officers exceeded 40% on November 30. The Guardsmen would not directly supervise inmates but would be used in support positions for security, such as in the towers and secured entrances. By utilizing the guard, the Board of Corrections hopes there will be enough manpower to reactivate 124 beds at the Tucker Re-entry Center. Although utilizing the National Guard in corrections roles would be new in Arkansas, it has been done in other states including Florida and New Hampshire. Chairman Magness’ letter requesting Guard assistance was sent last evening, but so far, Governor Sanders’ office has not responded to the request.
Today at 6:59 a.m., Sanders’ press office shared a letter to Magness in which she accused him of playing games, staging stunts, etc. What’s that old saying? Every accusation is a confession? Here’s the letter:
I am in receipt of your letter requesting that 138 National Guardsman be deployed to work full-time in the prisons. Your letter is yet another example of the desire to play political games, and this time you are involving our brave National guardsmen and women as pawns. Secretary Profiri had a plan to safely reopen beds with no additional personnel needed. If the Board wants to reactivate beds, then they should reinstate the Secretary and implement his plan without delay. I will not inject our guardsmen and women into a purely political situation caused by the very person requesting them.
You suspended Secretary Profiri and filed frivolous litigation against the State, resulting in great expense to our taxpayers, all in an effort to maintain the “status quo.” The status quo in Arkansas is exactly what placed us in this situation.
It is obvious from a review of the historical data that you are more interested in engaging in these public political stunts than you are in doing your actual job. Under Secretary Profiri’s leadership, real progress was being effected in the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Progress that was long overdue, due to this Board’s lack of action. And now, that progress has been stifled by the actions of the Board, under your guidance. It is clear to me, and to the people of Arkansas, that you are not interested in fulfilling the stated purpose of the Board. Criminals are not being held accountable for their actions, victim needs are not being addressed positively, and the safety of society is being ignored. That is why I signed the Protect Act, to which you testified against, into law.
With that in mind, it is at this time that I must call for your immediate resignation. It is clear that the Board of Corrections is incapable of rational, reasonable, or fiscally responsible decision making under your leadership. Much as it has been over the past two decades, you believe that you are the sole member of the board. Your letters, actions, and commands issued at the department, which lack prior board approval or a public board vote, make that glaringly obvious. You refuse to abide by the law or operate in the public eye, engaging in conduct that does not constitute an official action of the Board. After 27 years, it is time for you to stand out of the way of progress and let someone actually focused on the safety of Arkansans take your place on the board. Someone who shares an actual concern for the situation in which we find ourselves, rather than someone who cares only about his own power.
Since Secretary Profiri took office, vacancy rates have seen a reduction of over twenty (20) percent. The Board approved nearly 300 beds at the Tucker Unit this past April. The vacancy rate at that time was higher than the current vacancy rate at Tucker Max. Those bed reactivations have proven successful despite the vacancy rate. Under Secretary Profiri’s guidance, vacancy rates are the lowest they have been in recent years.
At the December meeting, Secretary Profiri outlined his plan of action. He met with each warden, as well as Director Payne, to discuss bedspace and staffing capabilities. All parties agreed that the additions would not impact operations or protocols. You were advised of the same. If the Board of Corrections is truly concerned about the safety of those involved in the prison system, the safety of the public at large, and the safety of our military personnel, you will immediately put Secretary Profiri back to work to fulfill his plan for staffing the prison systems. Mr. Chairman it is time to put the safety of Arkansans first and step aside.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders
These tits for tats are unfolding amid an ongoing court battle that so far has offered some entertaining criticism of Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin but no resolution to the battle over adding more prison beds to lock up more people despite a dearth of guards and other prison staff. These jobs, usually located in remote areas and not without risk, are understandably tough to fill. But understaffed prisons put guards and inmates at risk. Magness seems troubled by that proposition; Sanders and her Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri do not.
Profiri is new to Arkansas, an import from Arizona, where a recent election turned the state from red to blue and left Republicans in state government looking for jobs. Arkansas lawmakers passed a new law this spring that gives the governor the power to hire and fire the corrections secretary, a power that used to belong to the Board of Corrections.
Now, the Board of Corrections is suing on the basis of Amendment 33 of 1942, passed by the people to preserve the independent authority of certain state boards and commissions to prevent political shenanigans like the one we’re now watching unfold.