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UPDATE: This story was updated at 7:58 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023, with Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Sanders’ response to the governor’s call for him to resign.
The head of the Arkansas prisons board said Friday night he will not step down, as Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called for him to do earlier that day.
In a letter Friday morning, Sanders suggested Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness “stand out of the way of progress and let someone actually focused on the safety of Arkansans take your place on the board.”
Sanders sent the letter in response to one from Magness in which he asked the governor to activate 138 National Guard members to help staff short-handed prisons.
Sanders called Magness’ request a political stunt.
“I will not resign,” Magness said at the end of a special-call meeting the board held late Friday afternoon to reaffirm actions it took at two previous meetings in December.
He said the request for Guard members “was sincere and thoughtful.” The board “has gone out of its way to avoid being political,” he added. Noting that he’s worked with every governor since Sanders’ father, Mike Huckabee, appointed him to the corrections board, Magness said, “we stand ready to do the same with Gov. Sanders’ administration.”
In his Wednesday letter, Magness requested 40 Guardsmen for the Maximum Security and Tucker Units near Pine Bluff to free up prison guards to open 124 additional beds at the Tucker Re-Entry Center.
Magness said the additional 98 Guard members requested would serve at other prisons across the state that have correctional officer vacancy rates higher than 40%.
Under Magness’ proposal, the Guard members would not work directly with inmates.
“These personnel will be utilized in the perimeter security, towers and outside rovers, of both units as well as the secured entrances,” Magness wrote.
The decision to call on the Arkansas Guard for matters within the state rests with the governor. The Guard is usually only activated in emergencies, such as in response to national disasters. Members of the Guard were recruited to assist state agencies with logistics and screening during the coronavirus pandemic, and Sanders has sent guardsmen to the U.S. border with Mexico to assist with security there.
The addition of temporary beds at the Max Unit and other prison facilities across the state has served as a catalyst for a dispute between the Board of Corrections with Sanders, Profiri and Attorney General Tim Griffin.
Sanders’ Friday letter continued her public criticism of the board and Magness.
“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,” Sanders wrote. “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.”
She said it was time for Magness, who was first appointed to the board in 1999 and has served as chairman for 17 years, to resign.
The governor has the power to remove a member of a board protected by Amendment 33 to the Arkansas Constitution, like the prison board. But she would need the support of a majority of the board’s members. That is unlikely given that a majority of members last week voted to sue Sanders.
The corrections board in recent weeks signed off on adding 254 beds in existing spaces across three prisons, but has been reluctant to grant Profiri’s request to add 244 beds in a vacant building at the McPherson Unit, a women’s prison near Newport, and 124 beds at the Re-Entry Center in the Maximum Security Unit.
The board’s chief worry has been about the strain additional inmates would put on correctional staff, but it has also expressed concerns about the ability of the prison system’s infrastructure, especially sewer systems, to handle an influx of more than 600 new prisoners.
On Friday night, Magness said the only additional beds Profiri requested that the board denied were the 124 at the Maximum Security Unit because of a high vacancy rate among the correctional staff.
While prison staff vacancy rates remain at about 40%, Sanders wrote in her letter that staff vacancies have reached their lowest levels in recent years under Profiri. She added that Profiri met with wardens at each prison and Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne, and all parties agreed the expansion plan was safe.
Sanders and Profiri in defiance of the board planned to move forward with the bed additions, prompting a lawsuit from the board over the question of who has authority over Arkansas prisons.
A judge last week granted the board’s request for a temporary restraining order, blocking Profiri and the governor from adding additional beds. A hearing on whether to make that order a preliminary injunction is set for Dec. 28.
The board has suspended Profiri for the duration of the litigation.
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.