Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Abuse and Neglect in the County Jails of Arkansas
There isn’t much to the town of Walnut Ridge, the seat of Lawrence County in northeastern Arkansas. You have to drive about a hundred miles on old Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67, through towns like Minturn (population 107) and Alicia (population 121) to get there. Its only claim to fame is that the Beatles once changed planes at the regional airport in 1964—which it commemorates with an Abbey Road mural, a Beatles’ Guitar Walk, and an annual Beatles on the Ridge festival. Other than that, the town has a drugstore, a couple of churches, acres of farmland, and the county courthouse, which houses the county jail.
I first visited Walnut Ridge last summer when Seeds of Liberation, the nonprofit I was working for, was asked to speak with an inmate at the jail. When I arrived at the run-down courthouse, it was pretty clear the heels I had brought along wouldn’t be necessary. It was pouring rain that day, so I waded through the parking lot in dress pants and sandals and asked the secretary at the court office for directions to the jail. She led me down a dim hallway to a room with 1970s-style paneling and a receptionist in a T-shirt advertising the local high school football team. A few minutes later, I was sitting in what amounted to a computer closet around a tiny table with Scott Archer.
Archer has been in and out of the county jail and state prison for several years. His convictions, mostly on drug-related charges and failure to pay fines and fees, combined with his status as a low-level sex offender, have hurt his ability to find employment.
He has been held in the Lawrence County Jail on four separate occasions while waiting for trial, he later told me—once for a day, once for a week, once for two months, and once for six months. The facility has 42 beds, but it is consistently overcrowded, forcing inmates to sleep in the hallway or on the floor.
“In Lawrence County, from the time you’re put in there, it’s at least forty days before you get to go to court,” he told me. “A lot of places will have court once a week, but they only have court there like once every five weeks. If you’re lucky, you’ll get on the first docket, but usually you get on the second or third docket. So if you can’t make bail, you’re there for four or five months.”
When I visited Archer last summer, he was in the middle of one of his months-long stints at the jail.
His family’s neighbor, Cindy Parke, had asked us to meet with him to look into rumors that the jail was dirty and crowded and that the guards weren’t all that nice. When Parke and Archer’s family visited him in jail, he told them shocking stories of how guards and staff were mistreating him and other inmates. The most egregious incident occurred only days before I first visited him.
“I was being disruptive—it was lights out and I kept making noises,” Archer said. “They came back and told me to be quiet, and I didn’t, and they came back and was going to put me in isolation and I didn’t want to go. So they tasered me and put me in what they call a chair—it looks like a wheelchair with handcuffs – they put me in that and restrained me and put me in the shower, and put a football helmet on my head and kept hitting it until I’d be quiet.”
And that wasn’t all. Archer had been fighting a toothache for a while, he said, and had requested to see a dentist.
“I put several applications in to get to the dentist and they never would,” he said. “They kept telling me I had an appointment and they would never get me to the doctor.”
The toothache worsened. Sitting in the visiting room at the jail with me, he reached back into his mouth and pulled out a tooth. It had rotted clean through. I asked if he’d shown that to the guards or the jail staff. He had. They had done nothing, he said, and still refused him medical attention. As Archer finished his story, he gingerly placed the rotten tooth back into his gums.
“There was an incident with one guy where he was a hemophiliac, he bled a lot,” he added. “They mixed up the medicine they gave him. They gave him aspirin that made his blood thinner, and he started bleeding. They wound up having to take him to the emergency room.” Jail staff, rather than medical professionals, handle the distribution of medication in the jail.
This incident wasn’t the most egregious. Archer told me that another inmate was supposed to be receiving treatment for a serious mental illness. The man’s prescription had run out, and Archer thought the jail staff were dragging their feet to renew his medicine. Instead, the guards reportedly told the inmate they would place him in solitary confinement until he “recovered” from a breakdown.
This isn’t the first time the Lawrence County Jail has been accused of impropriety since its founding in 1965. Citing insufficient staff and chronic overcrowding, jail inspection reports over the last twelve years have consistently referred to the jail as “dangerous.” According to the inspections, several employees had not received a basic jail training course. A 2013 letter from the Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee asked the county Quorum Court and the County Judge to tour the facility “to familiarize themselves with the liability they carry as a county governing body.”
In 2014, the Arkansas Jail Standards Board voted unanimously to order the county to close the jail by September of that year and transfer its inmates to facilities in other counties. But due to a legal loophole, the jail did not close. The Quorum Court instead decided to build a new jail funded by a half-cent sales tax increase, which voters approved that year. Ground broke on the new facility in January 2016 — almost a year and a half after the original jail was deemed unsafe — but it has yet to open. The county has said, tentatively, that construction will finish in January 2018.
Meanwhile, Lawrence County’s inmates, many of whom cannot afford to post bail or to pay the overdue fines that landed them in jail, sit in cramped, overcrowded cells. Archer says they are allowed outside only once or twice a week—if they’re lucky.
The jail received two more damning inspections in 2015 and 2016.
In Arkansas, there are 28 judicial districts, each with its own jail review committee. At least once a year, the committee visits each facility and reviews it based on minimum standards published by the state.
“There were two inspections while I was [in Lawrence County Jail],” said Archer. “People walked through and inspected it. I don’t really know what they were looking for, but the days prior to that the staff did a lot of moving stuff out of the kitchen and painting and cleaning.”
The many failed inspections and attempted closure of the jail were due to the 40-year-old building’s structural deficiencies, not because of the jail’s practice of mistreating its inmates.
Community efforts to hold officials accountable for keeping the current facility in passable condition have proven fruitless. Over the last several months, Parke—a resident of neighboring town Imboden—has been in constant contact with state and local officials trying to understand why the jail has not yet closed, or why the county has neglected to provide its inmates adequate medical care. Her efforts have gotten nowhere.
She and I both filed federal Department of Justice complaints against the jail and its staff with the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division. Though we each received a response promising that the department would look further into the matter, seven months later, there has been no change. Parke’s inquiries to state legislative offices have also come up empty. The Lawrence County Jail Administrator and the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office did not return multiple requests to comment for this article.
The problems that have surfaced in Lawrence County Jail don’t seem confined to that facility. A former employee at the Benton County Jail, on the other side of the state in northwest Arkansas, who agreed to speak with me on condition of anonymity, described similar practices there. The jail serves a much larger and wealthier county than Lawrence County, and its inmate population consistently hovers around 500.
“Many inmates don’t get the proper medication in jail; for example, no inmates are allowed medication for ADD,” the former staffer said in an email. “Inmates that were suicidal or of unsteady mental health were ‘thrown in the hole’—put in solitary confinement—which made little sense to me of how this was supposed to improve mental health.”
In a highly publicized case in 2012, the jail settled a million-dollar lawsuit in which a female inmate, Faith Whitcomb, died from pancreatic cancer there after being refused any medical treatment except Tylenol for months. According to local media, the inmate’s family believes that one of the reasons she was refused medical treatment was because she suffered from severe mental illness.
Parke thinks there is pressure to keep arrests and the inmate population high in Lawrence County in part to generate revenue for the county. In Arkansas, counties are responsible for funding and maintaining their jails— a task that generally falls to the Quorum Court of each county.
In areas like rural Lawrence County, where the poverty rate is nearly 24 percent, steady streams of revenue can be hard to secure. Fines and fees charged to inmates by the county courthouse can make up a sizable portion of the budget for cash-strapped counties. In Benton County, inmates must pay a fee to set up a medical appointment. Arkansas counties can charge fees for anything, from filing required paperwork to an inmate’s use of a public defender, which is a constitutional right.
Yet the jails in both Lawrence and Benton Counties remain understaffed. The former employee of the Benton County Jail thinks this has more to do with what the county prioritizes in its budget-making than it does with a lack of funding.
“While officers were getting brand new Tahoes to replace mildly worn ones, and using those cars for personal use (instances of using them on vacation, one as far as Florida), many aspects of the jail were neglected,” they said. “Understaffed jail guards were constantly busy and missing critical dates and details. I remember finding an inmate in our system that was supposed to have been released days prior to when I found him still sitting in our jail, simply because of either overwork or little attention to detail.” A spokesperson for the Benton County Jail could not be reached for comment.
Archer also attributes some of the problems at Lawrence County to issues with the county budget.
“I think they [the guards] are underpaid,” he said. “If we were lucky, we [went outside] one time a week for an hour. Their excuse for that was that they were undermanned, didn’t have the staff.”
The lack of adequate staffing at the Benton County jail has caused issues for both inmates and their families, said the former staffer.
“Late visitations and late releases occur. Particularly, the deputies in booking have too many responsibilities and inmates for the number of staff,” they said. “It was not uncommon to have loved ones of someone arrested call and call all day, unsure of what was going on, simply because the staff had not had time to properly update the computers with inmate information.”
Correctional facilities across Arkansas have faced scrutiny after a slew of lawsuits that allege inmate mistreatment much like what Archer described at Lawrence County. A 2015 article in Al Jazeera America entitled “What’s the Matter With Arkansas?” details similar incidents of abuse at county jails and prisons across the state. Since January 2016, there have been 887 cases filed in federal court challenging the conditions of incarceration facilities in Arkansas. Experts and government officials alike generally trace this phenomenon to overcrowding, an issue that has been exacerbated by a state law passed in 2013 making it harder for inmates to be released on parole and easier for those out on parole to be reincarcerated.
Parke said that since she started asking around about the Lawrence County Jail, former inmates have reached out to her about the facility’s conditions.
“I continue to have people contact me weekly with complaints, both in past years and present, because I am asking,” she said.
To even bring a case to court can be difficult for people who are incarcerated—the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, passed in 1996, prohibits inmates from bringing cases regarding prison conditions to court unless “such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.”
Because prisons and jails themselves are in direct control of these “administrative remedies,” it can be nearly impossible for an inmate to satisfy this requirement and get standing in court. Archer and several other inmates with whom I was in contact last summer did not pursue legal action because of this requirement.
Nevertheless, there are some signs of progress. Over the last few years, several county jails across the state have voluntarily closed, and six new facilities have opened. Several other counties have begun new construction, or are remodeling or expanding their current facilities.
Counties and jail examiners hope that this will alleviate some of the overcrowding issues. But while these improvements might make a difference in inmates’ long-term standard of living, there has still been no concerted effort to address inmate abuse or lack of medical care.
Lisa Corrigan, an assistant professor of communication and director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Arkansas, and the author of Prison Power: How Prison Influenced the Movement for Black Liberation, said that once someone has been convicted of a felony, political institutions become significantly less likely to respond to their concerns—which makes it difficult to advocate for better jail conditions or more funding.
“Inmates and former inmates experience what is termed ‘civil death,’ where many of their citizenship rights are revoked,” she said. “Beyond employment and educational penalties is the fact that felons can’t vote, which means that their perspectives on the justice system aren’t part of its reform or abolition.”
These obstacles—along with the localized nature of county jail policy—make it difficult to advocate for broader jail reforms or highlight the conduct of jail staff. Corrigan also attributes the lack of public attention focused on this issue to the American mindset.
“From an administrative perspective, transparency has been the overwhelming challenge for accountability [regarding the safety of inmates],” she said. “From an ideological perspective, it has been the American penchant for retributive justice instead of restorative justice.”
Americans, she thinks, are less likely to be concerned about the rights of individuals with criminal records because they are viewed as more deserving of punishment—even if the abuse occurs in jails before they have gone to trial, when people are still presumed innocent.
But the eerily similar environments at Lawrence County Jail and Benton County Jail — facilities over 240 miles apart — indicate a widespread, institutionalized system of civil rights violations at jails across Arkansas. For former inmates like Archer—who has since moved out of the state to find work—it is too late to undo the lasting physical and mental effects of the abuse sustained during incarceration. For others, it might not be. But, said Parke, state and county officials need to start taking these problems seriously.
“Can you tell I am angry? Yes, I am. I am also very hurt that our elected officials, especially those in law enforcement would allow these things to occur on their watch. They are the stewards of public trust, and should be accountable to a higher standard of behavior,” she wrote in her complaint to the Department of Justice. “I say these prisoners deserve to be treated like human beings. A little dignity can go a long way.”