Judge blocks Arkansas law that took away board’s ability to fire state corrections secretary

Dec 15, 2023, 4:01 PM | Updated: 4:26 pm

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas judge on Friday blocked a new law that took away the Board of Corrections’ authority over the state corrections secretary and other top officials, the latest in an escalating feud between the panel and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders over the prison system.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Patricia James granted the board’s request for a temporary restraining order the day after the panel filed a lawsuit and suspended Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri with pay.

The board argued that the law violated the state’s constitution by usurping its authority and giving the governor hiring and firing authority over the corrections secretary. Sanders appointed Profiri to the post, and he was confirmed by the panel earlier this year.

The move follows the Sanders’ administration’s plans to move forward with opening hundreds of new temporary prison beds that the board had not approved. Members of the board have said opening the temporary beds would jeopardize the safety of inmates and staff.

Arkansas’ prisons are currently above capacity, with more than 1,600 additional state inmates being held in county jails.

“Absent relief, (the board) will suffer immediate and irreparable harm because Defendants caused additional beds to be added to inadequate prison facilities,” James wrote. The law blocked by James also would have given Profiri, not the board, hiring and firing authority over the correction and community correction divisions.

James set a Dec. 28 hearing over the lawsuit. Attorney General Tim Griffin was reviewing the order and preparing a response, a spokesman said.

Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Sanders, said the governor would work with Griffin to “respond appropriately in court, end the policy of catch and early release of dangerous criminals, and defend the safety of Arkansans.”

The ruling came the same day Griffin filed a lawsuit against the board, accusing it of violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act when it approved hiring an outside attorney to represent it. Griffin’s lawsuit also claims the board did not follow the law in its response to an FOI request he sent over the attorney’s hiring.

“The Board of Corrections has shown a complete disregard for the law, so I am asking the court to step in to compel compliance,” Griffin, a Republican, said in a news release.

Abtin Mehdizadegan, the board’s attorney, said the panel followed the FOI law and criticized Griffin’s lawsuit.

“This appears to me to be political retribution and abject weaponization of the attorney general’s office to effect that political retribution,” Mehdizadegan said.

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Judge blocks Arkansas law that took away board’s ability to fire state corrections secretary