Officials: Ark. inmates had TASER during hostage situation
About a quarter of the prison's security positions were unfilled at the time of Monday's incident
By Andrew DeMillo
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Several Arkansas inmates who stole keys from correction officers and briefly controlled the doors and locks in part of a maximum security prison also had a Taser, and a key was found on a bus after the inmates were sent to another facility following the incident, according to documents released Tuesday by the state.
The documents provided to The Associated Press under an open records request show that Arkansas Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley told other prison officials in an email that the inmates who held the three officers for three hours at the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker Monday had also taken a Taser and other equipment.
"We need to learn from these incidents, make changes as necessary and continue to strengthen our operation," Kelley told the officials, whom she asked to serve on a committee investigating the disturbance.
Text messages also revealed that a handcuff key was found on a bus that took the inmates to another facility. Department of Correction Spokesman Solomon Graves said the key was discovered after the inmates had been transported, while a door key was found when the inmates were searched prior to transport. Both keys were believed to be from the incident, Graves said. According to the texts, the inmates were searched before they left so it's unclear where on the bus the cuff key was found. The inmates also urinated on the bus, according to the messages.
In the texts, prisons officials expressed relief that the inmates were searched before they left for the Varner Supermax Unit following the incident.
"That would have been a large key and cuff key they took to Varner," Joe Page, warden of the Tucker Unit, said in a text message.
"Or may have used the cuff key to get out of the restraints on the highway," Dexter Payne, deputy director of institutions, replied.
Two Georgia inmates in June escaped from a prison bus and left two guards dead. Officials later said the guards violated numerous security procedures that allowed the inmates to free themselves.
It was not clear how the inmates obtained a Taser. Correction Department Spokesman Solomon Graves said to his knowledge, none of the three officers had one. Only lieutenants, captains and majors are authorized to have a Taser at the facility, he said.
The officers were released with scrapes, bruises and other minor injuries, and were not on duty Tuesday. Graves said there were about 25 inmates in the housing area where the disturbance occurred. The inmates were able to overpower the officers and take the keys as prisoners were being moved in and out of the area for recreation. The department on Monday said about six inmates were involved in the incident, but eight were moved to Varner, according to the text messages. Graves said the exact number of inmates involved is part of the department's internal review.
The incident was the second major disturbance at the prison, which is 30 miles (48 kilometers) southeast of Little Rock, within the past month. A guard at the same prison fired three warning shots into the air on July 22 after two guards and an inmate were attacked. The department said it was not informed of the shots fired until it was reported by the Arkansas Times last week.
About a quarter of the prison's security positions were unfilled at the time of Monday's incident. The prison is authorized to have 208 security positions, Graves said, but 49 of those positions are vacant. There were 529 inmates at the prison at the time of the incident.
J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said the governor had spoken Monday with Arkansas Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley and would receive a fuller briefing later in the week on the incident.
A state lawmaker said she was concerned about the two incidents at the prison, and said she wanted to discuss the issue with Kelley and other corrections officials when they appear before a legislative panel next week.
"If there are issues of not having enough personnel, if there are policies and practices that we need to change, whatever the case is, something needs to happen," said Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott, who co-chairs the Legislative Council's charitable, penal and correctional institutions subcommittee. "Because this is not good for the people who work there, nor is it good for the population in general."