Arkansas board suspends corrections secretary, sues over state law removing ability to fire him

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The Arkansas Board of Corrections suspended the state’s corrections secretary on Thursday and sued the state over a law removing its ability to fire him, ramping up its dispute with Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders over who runs the state’s prison system.

The panel voted 3-2 to suspend Secretary Joe Profiri, who Sanders had appointed and was confirmed by the board earlier this year, with pay. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that board member William “Dubs” Byers accused Profiri of showing “public disdain” for the board’s authority.

“What we contemplate today is no small matter,” Byers said, the paper reported. “The secretary has made it clear in public and in private that he works exclusively for the governor and not the board.”

Profiri told reporters that he planned to remain at work and answered to the governor.

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. Sanders last month had publicly criticized the board for not fully approving the request for temporary beds.

The Republican governor said Thursday she stood behind Profiri and criticized the board.

“The Board of Corrections would rather continue the failed catch and release policies instead of working with the Secretary to make our state safer, stronger, and more secure,” Sanders posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “I will continue to do everything in my power to keep Arkansans safe.”

In a lawsuit filed after the vote, attorneys for the board said the governor’s plan to move forward with the temporary beds would jeopardize the safety of inmates and staff.

“This action, taken without proper authorization and in disregard of the established procedures and oversight responsibilities of the Board of Corrections, poses a serious risk to the constitutional rights of inmates and the safety of correctional staff and the general public,” the lawsuit said.

In the lawsuit, the board asked a state judge to block the enforcement of portions of a new law signed by Sanders that would remove the board’s ability to hire and fire the secretary. Under that law, Profiri serves at the pleasure of the governor. Another law taking effect in January would also give Profiri, not the board, hiring and firing power for the heads of the correction and community correction divisions.

The lawsuit argued the changes violate the state constitution by usurping the board’s authority. They were passed as part of an overhaul of the state’s sentencing laws. The sentencing overhaul removes parole eligibility for certain offenders and begins to take effect Jan. 1.

Attorney General Tim Griffin, who had accused the panel of not following the state Freedom of Information Act in its vote last week to hire outside attorneys, said he was reviewing the board’s latest moves.

“We are reviewing the board’s actions but remain troubled that they continue to violate the law regarding compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and the unauthorized hiring of an outside counsel,” Griffin said in a statement.

The state’s prisons are currently holding 16,442 inmates, exceeding its capacity of 15,022, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman said. More than 1,600 additional state inmates are being held in county jails, a backup that sheriffs around the state have long complained about.