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A judge ruled late Thursday that Arkansas’ prison chief serves, for now, at the pleasure of the Board of Corrections, not Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Patricia James converted her temporary restraining order into a preliminary injunction after an all-day hearing, striking a blow to Sanders’ and Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri’s plans to add more temporary inmate beds in existing prison facilities.
Attorney General Tim Griffin, whose deputies argued the case against the Board of Corrections, said he planned to appeal the decision.
The case could be precedent-setting as it tests the limits of the authority granted to state boards under Amendment 33 to the Arkansas Constitution. In addition to the prisons board, the amendment also grants some degree of independence to the governing boards of Arkansas’ colleges and universities. (Attorneys for some of those institutions watched the proceedings from the gallery on Thursday.)
James ruled from the bench Thursday, saying she found the Board of Corrections’ arguments about its constitutional independence persuasive.
She blocked a pair of new state laws, Act 185 of 2023 and Sections 79 and 89 of Act 659 of 2023, from taking effect. The acts removed Profiri as well as the directors of the community correction and correction divisions of the Department of Corrections from under the board’s authority. James indicated that she is likely to agree the new laws violate the Constitution by weakening the board’s authority.
James last month entered a temporary restraining order enjoining the laws.
“The secretary of corrections and the directors of the division of correction and the division of community correction shall continue serving at the pleasure of the Board of Corrections,” James said Thursday.
The dispute between the Board of Corrections and Sanders, Profiri and Griffin began to fester in November after the governor and attorney general held a press conference to criticize the board for not approving Profiri’s plans to add more than 600 temporary prison beds to relieve part of the backlog of state inmates being held in county jails.
The board has expressed reservations about adding the beds due to chronically low staffing levels in Arkansas prisons and inadequate infrastructure, but it has approved roughly 500 of the requested beds.
It has declined to give approval for 124 additional beds at the Tucker Re-Entry Center near Pine Bluff. The board sued Sanders and Profiri after they said they planned to move forward with the additional beds despite the board’s disapproval.
The board also suspended Profiri without pay; Profiri planned to ignore the board’s directive until James entered the December restraining order.
From the witness stand, Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness said Profiri had exhibited disrespect and disregard for the board to the point that he could be fired.
Magness after the hearing said he was grateful for James’ ruling, and he said the board would decide at their next meeting whether Profiri should be terminated.
Griffin in a statement said an appeal was coming.
“While I am disappointed in the ruling, I am confident in the work of my extraordinary team of attorneys and staff, and the case we are preparing on appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court,” the Republican attorney general said in a statement.
Alexa Henning, Gov. Sanders’ communications director, expressed confidence in the appeal.
“The Board of Corrections continues to play politics with the safety of Arkansans,” Henning said in a statement. “This is about protecting the people in this state and ending the failed policy of catch and release. The Governor is confident in the Attorney General and his team’s appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court.”
Much of Thursday’s hearing focused on procedural points about whether the attorney general’s office should be involved in the litigation or if the board had the authority to hire its own special counsel.
James ruled that the AG’s office shouldn’t be disqualified from the case, but she said a pair of attorneys in the office that represent the board in unrelated litigation shouldn’t participate in this case.
She also opined that the Board of Corrections is a constitutional board and its members are therefore “constitutional officers” who may hire an outside attorney when they disagree with the attorney general about a constitutional provision.
While much of Thursday’s testimony rehashed details of the dispute over the prison system that have been reported publicly, several witnesses offered some new information, including the former director of the Division of Community Correction.
Jerry Bradshaw testified that he retired from leading the parole and probation agency Dec. 31 because he didn’t want to work for Profiri. Bradshaw said that morale at the corrections agency was low and cost-cutting measures were being taken at Profiri’s direction without regard for the safety of inmates or correctional officers.
Tommy James, an auditor for the Board of Corrections, also took the stand to discuss a review of the temporary bed plans he completed at Magness’ request.
“In my opinion, [the expansion plan] is not safe,” he said under questioning from the board’s attorney, Abtin Mehdizadegan.
Trey Cooper, a lawyer in the attorney general’s office, sought to discredit James’ findings, pointing out that James was fired from the Department of Correction in 2013 after his supervisor determined he used state computer equipment to complete inmates’ tax returns and was dishonest about it during an internal investigation.
James, who was later rehired by the department, said he did the inmates’ tax work pro-bono, and he disputed the supervisor’s characterization that he was dishonest.
Thursday’s hearing was also delayed for several hours after a bomb threat was made at the Pulaski County Courthouse. It continued after the building was cleared by law enforcement.
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from the Arkansas Advocate. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.