Improving mental health services in Arkansas prisons focused on legislative hearing

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Arkansas Department of Corrections Director Dexter Payne

Formerly incarcerated individuals and prison reform advocates told lawmakers Monday that inadequate mental health services are one of the biggest problems in the Arkansas Department of Corrections.

LeDeana Biddle, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Arkansas Department of Corrections Family Support, was one of a dozen people who told the Joint Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs that the treatment of state inmates needs to improve.

“It’s no secret that mental illness is prevalent within our incarcerated population, yet our system is ill-equipped to meet these needs,” Biddle said. “Instead of rehabilitation, we witness the worsening of mental health conditions, which perpetuates a vicious cycle that benefits no one.”

Division of Corrections Director Dexter Payne said the agency’s mental health staff sees any inmate who asks for services. If the prisoners were only seen once, they probably wouldn’t have asked.

“And I think that’s a concern,” Payne said. “If you ask to be seen, you need to be seen, and I don’t know of people who ask to be seen in mental health and don’t. I get phone calls all the time saying, ‘I need this family; my family needs that,’ and immediately someone comes to see them.

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said that’s not what he experienced when he contacted the DOC on behalf of someone concerned about an incarcerated family member struggling with his mental health.

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“I got the Department of Corrections and was told there was nothing to worry about,” Clark said. “Two weeks later, he took his own life.”

DOC Chief of Staff Lindsey Wallace said the department currently pays for mental health staff across the state, but it is working to improve by folding the department’s mental health component into one bag. medical service contract.

“Like everyone else, we do the best we can with mental health doctors, but we struggle given the pay rate for state jobs,” Wallace said.

In addition to mental health, members of the public voiced complaints to the committee about delayed medical care leading to long-term health issues, the cost of inmate phone calls, limited time on visits, and transparency issues, with many people expressing frustration that the DOC did not answer their questions.

Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, said he spoke with the department about several issues brought to his attention, and they responded quickly. Berry also said he is a “huge supporter” of the department.

“These people are incarcerated; they broke the law, and prison is not necessarily a good place, and things happen,” Berry said. “I know that the staff of our prisons and the secretary are accountable to people, and they make sure that our inmates are well taken care of.”

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Debbie Baker, who testified on behalf of her incarcerated son with mental issues, said inmates should not be treated the same.

“We are here to protect our loved ones, and yes, they have committed crimes, but they are not the scum of the earth, or at least not all of them, and they should not be treated as such,” Baker said.

Public safety is the priority of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the 2023 legislative session, which includes the passage of the Protect Act. Among other things, the new law removes the possibility of parole for those convicted of the most serious crimes, which could increase the need for more prisons.

Sanders supports prison expansion and last month criticized the Arkansas Board of Corrections for failing to approve a request to temporarily expand the prison system’s capacity by 622 beds. Chairman Benny Magness said the board made the decision because of a severe shortage of staff and running people.

The chair of the Arkansas Corrections Board responded to criticism from the governor and attorney general

Heather Imboden, a former corporal in Calico Rock’s North Central Unit, echoed those sentiments Monday when she said building more prisons is not the answer.

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“The biggest issue we have is overcrowding and understaffing,” he said. “Understaffing is a safety issue not only for inmates but for officers.”

Officials said Monday that staffing shortages are a nationwide problem, with the Arkansas Department of Corrections experiencing a 40% vacancy rate.

The sponsor of the Protection Act, Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, suggested that mental health issues and overcrowding in prisons could be alleviated by expanding hospital space in the state and requested data comparing the costs of people living in the facilities.

“It may not be necessary to have a lot of prison capacity when you have state hospital capacity, which, frankly, is probably where some of the offenders are best suited to live,” he said.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said she hopes Monday’s testimony will force lawmakers to make investments in mental health services for the state’s incarcerated population.

“I think that the department, as far as mental health is concerned, will do as well as they can with the resources they’re given,” Tucker said. “So to me, it’s less on the department to step up to the plate and provide the resources for mental health, and more on the state legislature to provide the resources.”