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A Central Arkansas judge granted the state prison board’s request for a temporary restraining order late Friday afternoon, directing Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her corrections chief to stop operating under the law that weakened the board’s authority.
Circuit Judge Patricia James ruled that irreparable harm could occur if Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri is permitted to add inmate beds to “inadequate prison facilities.”
James also signaled that she was likely to agree that the Board of Corrections had authority over the Department of Corrections and Profiri, meaning a new state law that placed Profiri under the governor could be struck down as unconstitutional.
The restraining order will remain in place for two weeks until a preliminary injunction hearing on Dec. 28.
The board sued Sanders and Profiri on Thursday after voting to suspend Profiri, who said he planned to ignore the directive. The board then, reportedly, made Division of Community Correction Director Jerry Bradshaw “Acting Executive-in-Charge.”
The ongoing power struggle between the board, Sanders and Profiri escalated over the last month as the board has rejected portions of Profiri’s plan to add temporary inmate beds in existing spaces across five Arkansas prisons.
Profiri and Sanders over the past week planned to move forward with the bed additions despite the board’s rejection.
The board in its lawsuit argues that it maintains the authority over state prisons under Amendment 33 to the Arkansas Constitution. A pair of state laws enacted earlier this year to remove the board’s authority over Profiri and the directors of the divisions of correction and community correction should be struck down, the lawsuit states.
Sanders’ Communications Director Alexa Henning said in a statement that “Governor Sanders will continue to work with the Attorney General to respond appropriately in court, end the policy of catch and early release of dangerous criminals, and defend the safety of Arkansans.”
Abtin Mehdizadegan, an outside attorney retained by the board, said he was appreciative of the court’s swift action.
Mehdizadegan was retained because state Attorney General Tim Griffin has been critical of the board and disagrees with members about the board’s powers.
At around the same time the TRO was entered, Griffin filed a separate lawsuit against the board, accusing it of violating the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act when it entered executive session during a pair of recent public meetings. Griffin also said the board failed to properly respond to a public records request from his office earlier this week.
“In the lawsuit, I am asking the court to take three actions: First, to void the board’s illegal agreement entered into with an outside counsel because that agreement was the direct result of an illegal executive session,” Griffin said in a statement. “Second, to void the board’s decision to appoint an acting executive in charge of the Department of Corrections because that decision was also the direct result of an illegal executive session. And third, to order the board to fully respond to my FOIA request.
“The Board of Corrections has shown a complete disregard for the law, so I am asking the court to step in to compel compliance.”
The board has maintained that the executive sessions pertained to personnel discussions and hadn’t violated Arkansas’ open meetings laws.
“I vigorously disagree that any violation has occurred by this board of the Freedom of Information Act,” Mehdizadegan said. “I believe the lawsuit is politically motivated and a dangerous weaponization of law enforcement to effect political retribution.”