Danny Johnston / AP

What’s the matter with Arkansas? Prison and jail lawsuits signal trouble

Massive overcrowding in the state’s prisons and jails has led to lawsuits alleging inmate abuse and medical indifference

The Saline County jail in Benton, Arkansas.

The Saline County Detention Center sits on a wooded plot of land in Benton, Arkansas, across the street from a bail bondsman, a tobacco shop and a dollar store. Since 1879, the jail has held inmates for a variety of small crimes, such as public intoxication, disorderly conduct and failure to pay tickets. But lately, because of overcrowding in state prisons, Saline County has housed inmates accused of more serious crimes, such as first-degree murder. And as Arkansas’ prison and jail populations have swelled, conditions inside them have gotten brutal.

In a much-publicized case in 2013, Robin Babovec Cruz filed suit against Saline County, its sheriff and 10 deputies over the death of her son, Casey Babovec, 30, who was being held in police custody. A grainy security camera video appears to show guards beating and sitting on him as he struggled to breathe. The case resulted in a hung jury. Since then, Saline County has settled numerous other cases alleging guard abuse, many under confidentiality agreements. In one, a female prisoner alleged a guard whirled her around and slammed her into a chair so hard, he broke her arm. The jail settled for what her lawyer called “a substantial sum.” In another case, the county settled with a man sent to jail for a traffic ticket who says he was tied to a chair for eight hours and beaten by guards “until his teeth were knocked from his mouth.” In the latest suit, filed against the Saline County Detention Center in April, a male inmate says he was refused medical care after suffering from a prolapsed colon and was left to lie in feces and blood for four days with his colon “literally hanging out of his body.” That case is pending.

Lawyer George Ellis, who frequently defends the Saline County Detention Center in court, says jails “aren’t pleasant places” to begin with, but he blames the brutal treatment of inmates on a minority of guards who “are punks” and “push people around.” Yet attorney Ed Adcock, who has represented plaintiffs in half a dozen cases against the jail, attributes it to a “culture of violence” among guards that has only gotten worse. “My law partner and I have taken a pile of money from that county for the last few years, and they just will not stop,” he says. “There is something endemic about brutality in that place.”

These problems aren’t limited to Saline County. Similar reports have emerged from county jails across the state. Recently, employees of jails in Carroll County and Benton County in northwestern Arkansas were sued after female inmates died in their custody; both suits alleged the guards did not respond to inmates’ pressing medical needs. The Benton County case ended in a million-dollar settlement.

County jails used to be just stopovers for inmates headed to state prisons. But as Arkansas’ state facilities have reached capacity, jails are increasingly being used to hold prisoners long term. According to the Arkansas Department of Corrections, there are 2,705 people in county jails awaiting beds in state prisons. In August, Arkansas set a record for the number of inmates under state jurisdiction: 19,055, or 3,000 more inmates than manageable capacity, according to lawmakers who have studied the system. The lack of space and a growing prison population has strained resources and put pressure on all levels of the penal system. And in recent years, the unhappy effects of that pressure have begun to show.

Following the numbers

While lawsuits over incarceration conditions have declined overall in the U.S., new data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University, shows that something entirely different is happening in Arkansas. In 2015 eastern Arkansas had the most filings in federal court of any U.S. region, and the number of suits filed increased by more than 30 percent compared with five years earlier. The western district of Arkansas is not far behind: A year ago, it ranked 10th nationally; this year it is third.

Statewide, more than 5,500 lawsuits related to incarceration conditions were filed in federal courts over the last decade, with a more than 50 percent uptick in filings from 2010 to 2015. By comparison, Mississippi, which has a slightly larger prison population than Arkansas and a comparable total population, registered about 3,000 suits over the last 10 years. These numbers include suits filed by inmates in county jails and state prisons, with the vast majority coming from jails. Cathy Frye, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, says that only 155 of the cases filed last year pertained to prisons.

Officials deny that the number of lawsuits indicate a problem in the state’s incarceration system. Lawsuits against prisons and jails start as grievances about everything from bad food and missed mail to prisoner abuse. The majority of complaints never became lawsuits, and those that do usually don’t get too far. “If you look at [how many] lawsuits are filed and how many are successful, there are not that many,” says Arkansas Board of Corrections head Benny Magness. Officials often attribute that to frivolousness of the concerns, but attorney Nicholas Lincoln Rogers says the low success rate is indicative not of prisoners “[ginning] up false complaints to tie up the legal system” but rather of the legal hoops and costs that prisoners face get their suits heard. Filing a grievance requires a prisoner to appeal to multiple officials; if officials do not agree with the complaint, the prisoner must pay a fee and file suit within a narrow window.

In 2014 and 2015, the majority of the grievances filed against Arkansas jails and prisons related to medical issues (such as medication not given or ordered) and complaints against staff (like verbal abuse, physical abuse and retaliation). These concerns were echoed in dozens of conversations with legislators, lawyers, corrections officials, civil rights groups, inmates and their families. Everybody agrees that these problems have been exacerbated by lack of space. Attorney Omavi Shukur of the nonprofit criminal justice reform organization Seeds of Liberation says, “Overcrowding and the stress of supervising more people leads to more violence and neglect at the hands of officers — and more vindictive neglect.” 

Overlooking medical issues

In many cases, reports of alleged abuse were linked to medical concerns. Health care spending per inmate in Arkansas is among the lowest in the country, according to a 2014 report from Pew Charitable Trusts. The report found Arkansas spent $4,166 per inmate in 2011, compared with almost $14,500 per inmate in California, the highest-spending state. (The lowest-spending state, Oklahoma, spent about $2,500 per inmate.) Inmates report that they’re routinely denied necessary medication, receive medication days late and are unable to meet with doctors when needed.

Treatment of inmates with mental health issues is especially problematic. A 2014 nationwide survey conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association found programs to divert the seriously mentally ill from the criminal justice system were “virtually nonexistent” in Arkansas. As a result, the report says, when the mentally ill were detained by police, they often ended up not in hospitals but in state prisons or county jails.

Carl Jackson was hospitalized for over a month after being released from jail, where his leg became seriously infected.
Courtesy Carl Jackson

Pearlie Moore experienced this cycle firsthand. In 2003 her son, Carl Jackson, lost his job at an international pest management company. He moved back home in early 2004, and a year later he had a mental breakdown. He suffered from bipolar disorder, and during an episode, he broke a car window in full view of several police officers. He then removed all his clothes to show officers he was not armed.

Jackson was taken to the Pulaski County Jail, where he was put in a solitary cell with the water turned off. He lay there naked for days, covered in urine and without any access to his medication. His leg began to swell, and he eventually became so thirsty, he drank from the toilet. By the time he was released from jail two weeks later, he had developed sepsis in his leg. He was previously diagnosed with having HIV, and he left with full-blown AIDS, likely from infections that developed during his incarceration. Moore, who says her son’s leg swelled to “three times the size” after his injuries and later smelled the “stench of death” on him while caring for him at home, sued the Pulaski County Jail. The case, like many others, was quietly settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

According to Rogers, Jackson’s lawyer, prison and jail employees are often “woefully unprepared for [dealing] with problems the mentally ill present” because they have “virtually no training or expertise.” Guards “are expected to be caretakers,” he says, “but they are trained as enforcers.” Today the Pulaski County Jail has a medical department that provides mental health services five days a week, though mental health training for guards varies from jail to jail. And at the state level, the Department of Corrections offers an eight-hour class that teaches guards how to deal with mentally ill prisoners.

Magness from the Arkansas Department of Corrections says he “[does] not see an issue with how the staff treats inmates.” Rather, he was more concerned with “how inmates are treating staff … We have instances every day where inmates throw feces and urine on staff members … [Staffers] do a very good job of restraining themselves.”

Jackson still remembers the single interaction he had with a guard at the Pulaski County Jail. He had been in his cell for several days, he says, when a guard escorted him to a shower. Jackson pointed to his swollen leg and told the guard he could barely walk and needed medical attention. The guard, he says, just ignored him.

“I felt like he realized that I was injured, but because of my mental state, he didn’t feel like I should be treated,” says Jackson, who now walks with a limp and has permanent muscle and nerve damage. “Obviously he felt the best course of action was to leave me in my cell.”

According to Rogers, prisoners with acute mental health issues are often segregated from the general prison population and “locked in cages for reasons beyond their control.” A new report on solitary confinement from Yale Law School found that Arkansas had the highest percentage of segregated male prisoners among all jurisdictions. As of fall 2014, it was about 7.5 percent of the inmate population. Jean Thrash, the director of Arkansas CURE, a criminal justice reform group, blames “the extended and overuse of solitary” on problems resulting from overcrowding. Meanwhile, Rogers says, the rest of the prison population is being crammed in “like sardines.” Inmates, he says, “are not being treated. They are being punished.”

Straining the system

Overcrowding was exacerbated in the late 1990s and early 2000s amid the war on drugs. During those years, tough-on-crime lawmakers passed legislation that extended sentences for drug charges, and the prison population grew accordingly. More recently, the state’s prison overcrowding can be traced to a series of laws passed in early 2013 by Republican state Sen. David J. Sanders that made it harder for inmates to get parole and easier for parolees to go back to prison. Those laws alone would not have massively increased the number of people incarcerated, but in May of that year, Darrell Dennis, a parolee who was previously arrested more than two dozen times, killed a teenager. The murder was a watershed for Arkansas: Within months, the Department of Corrections released much tougher guidelines for parolees. By the end of 2013, Arkansas saw a 17.7 percent increase in inmates from the year before — the largest of all the states and more than seven times the national average.

Earlier this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, called on the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonpartisan organization that serves state governments, to study the Arkansas’ struggling prison system. In its first report, released in July, the center raised the alarm about how fast the state’s prison population was rising. The report found the number of inmates increased 26 percent from 2004 to 2013, making Arkansas’ prison population the third fastest growing in the country, after West Virginia and Arizona. Two years earlier, a similar study by the Sentencing Project put Arkansas at the top of the list. These reports are particularly striking, given that violent crime in Arkansas has been falling for the last seven years.

A report by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel estimated that the state prison system was spending about $150 million a year incarcerating mentally ill inmates when it would cost only $7.5 million to treat them.

Shukur from Seeds of Liberation says overcrowding has already wreaked havoc on prisons and jails. He estimates that Sanders’ legislation and the 2013 restrictions have resulted in about 7,000 extra imprisonments, with many inmates being held on minor offenses. This overflow has also created a problem with staffing. A 2010 report from the Association of State Correctional Administrators found Arkansas had far fewer correctional officers than other states with the same prison population. For the nearly 14,000 prisoners in Arkansas in 2010, it employed 953 correctional officers. Colorado, Oregon and Massachusetts, which had roughly the same prison population at the time, employed 2,000 to 3,000 officers. Arkansas’ Department of Corrections says it plans to hire about 100 new staffers to account for the inmate increase, but for now, guards are typically expected to work long hours and in some cases are paid as little as $25,000 a year.

The costs of running a prison system as large as Arkansas’ are significant, and the system’s failures can make things worse. For example, a recent report commissioned by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel found that the cost to prosecute and incarcerate a mentally ill prisoner in a single year — about $30,000 — was about 20 times higher than what it would cost to treat and counsel that person. It estimated that the state prison system was spending about $150 million a year incarcerating mentally ill inmates when it would cost only $7.5 million to treat them. (In 2014 the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ total budget was $325 million.)

Relief on the horizon?

The situation in Arkansas’ prisons and jails may be at a breaking point. Over the last year, lawmakers have begun to come around to more reformist views. In May, Bill Clinton, a former Arkansas governor, acknowledged his role in federal policies that put too many people in prison, and state lawmakers are beginning to raise questions about problems associated with prison overcrowding. “Those policies in 2013, no question, were the primary driver of the prison population increase,” says Republican state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson. Now he says he believes that instead of allowing the prison population to keep skyrocketing, Arkansas “needs to find that happy medium.”

There is hope that overcrowding in Arkansas may soon be relieved. To make room for prisoners, the Arkansas Board of Corrections has routinely been invoking the Emergency Powers Act, which allows inmates within 90 days of parole to be set free early. As a result, the number of prisoners under state jurisdiction dropped from 19,055 inmates in August to 18,680 in September. In August the Department of Corrections parole board voted to review the cases of some 400 parole violators to try to decrease the population. Around the same time, lawmakers approved a proposal by Asa Hutchinson for a $7.4 million renovation of the Ester Unit at the Pine Bluff prison in central Arkansas, which will add 200 prison beds.

On a policy level, state legislators are seeking to overhaul the system. In April they rejected a request by Department of Corrections to build a $100 million prison, instead passing the Criminal Justice Reform Act, with the stated purpose of introducing “wide-ranging reforms to the criminal justice system in order to address prison overcrowding.” The act created two task forces to propel that change: one focusing on criminal justice reform, the other on behavioral health.

Jeremy Hutchinson, who is on both task forces and introduced the act, says the motivation is not to improve prison conditions (though he believes that will happen) but to relieve costs burdening the state. Meanwhile, Asa Hutchinson has announced plans to create re-entry centers that will provide skills training and help prisoners find jobs up to 18 months before they are released. A spokesman for the governor’s office says the centers will “help rehabilitate inmates into the society, which we haven’t really had in Arkansas.”

For now, Adcock, the lawyer who frequently represents inmates in Saline County, says he has not seen any improvement in the jail’s treatment of inmates. “This current sheriff, he’s not as bombastic, but he still seems to preside over a brutal jail,” he says. Officials at the Saline County jail did not return multiple phone calls requesting an interview, but the jail’s lawyer says he is representing the jail in six or seven suits brought by inmates — no fewer than at any given time under the previous sheriff.

Two years after her son died in police custody at the Saline County jail, Robin Babovec Cruz is looking for a new attorney. Her former lawyer, James Swindoll, says he won’t represent her in a retrial — or anybody else interested in bringing a case against the Saline County jail. Though there’s political will for prison reform, he says, courts present another stumbling block. “Most of these civil right cases are lost at the jury level,” he says, because in Arkansas, “jurors are hardened to the needs of people who are incarcerated. It’s like [inmates] don’t deserve human rights at all.”

At least for now, Swindoll is not optimistic about the state’s efforts to fix what he sees as a broken system. The problem of inmate abuse, he says, “has started and gotten worse, and nobody has stopped it … The only thing that’s going to stop it is when we can’t afford to take care of prisoners anymore.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter