Prison tense over contraband; five guards attacked at Misskelley’s unit; others ransack Echols’ cell

Gate to Varner complex. Photo by Brian Chilson, Arkansas Times

A source reports that guards ransacked Damien Echols’ cell on Death Row last weekend while the prison’s assistant warden had Echols in his office, where Echols was accused of participating in a video recording shot with a smuggled-in cell phone. The search followed by a week an incident at an adjoining unit during which inmates attacked five guard.

[private]When Echols was returned to his cell, he reportedly found his belongings strewn about, as though the cell had been searched. Nothing was reported taken.

The apparent search of Echols’ cell followed a reported “riot” the previous Saturday, Feb. 26, that resulted in four guards being injured. Dina Tyler, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Correction, said the incident at the sprawling Varner complex was sparked when 100 corrections officers conducted a middle-of-night search for contraband cell phones.

Tyler said that during the sweep a group of about 20 inmates “jumped” five guards. One guard escaped unharmed, but four were sent to a hospital. Tyler said four guards were released, but one will require surgery to repair broken bones around his eye.

Tensions are high at the complex, where administrators have not been able to control an influx of contraband cellphones, despite increased restrict ions. The large number of cell phones entering the prison has prompted concerns among prison officials that they face an organized smuggling ring.

In 2010, the Arkansas Department of Correction confiscated 277 cell phones inside the state’s prisons. Seventy-one percent of those phones, including two taken from guards, were found at the two-unit complex known as Varner. The complex, which has one warden, houses the Supermax Unit, where Death Row is located, and an adjoining, lower-security section, called the Varner Unit, where Jessie Misskelley resides.

The attack on the guards occurred at the Varner Unit. Tyler said one barracks was involved. Inside reports say two.

In January, when I reported on the growing problem of illicit cell phones at the Varner complex, Tyler told the Arkansas Times: “Cell phones are probably the biggest security threat we face. Inmates want cell phones so they can have conversations that aren’t recorded… Cases in point: Our last three escapes were orchestrated with cell phones.”

Despite such concern, cell phones continue to penetrate the prison. Two weeks ago, I visited Echols, Misskelley and another inmate at Varner. All three told me that twice within the past week, a large number of cell phones had been discovered at the prison, increasing officials’ alarm. The attack on the guards at the Varner Unit occurred four days later.

The department did not report the incident. It was acknowledged only after a source inside the prison leaked word to me about what he called the “riot.” When asked about the incident, Tyler told the Arkansas Times that it probably “had a lot to do” with the recent discovery of two large caches of cell phones on the prison grounds.

According to Tyler, on Feb. 17, guards found a bag containing 38 cell phones, tobacco, marijuana, rolling papers, and batteries. On Feb. 22 another bag was found that contained 28 cell phones. It is a Class B felony for an inmate to possess a cell phone and for anyone, employee or otherwise, to furnish a cell phone to an inmate.

Thus, it was a serious matter when, a week after the attack on the guards, Curtis Meinzer, the assistant warden who oversees the Supermax Unit, questioned Echols about having been filmed with a contraband cell phone. Echols reportedly denied the charge, but Meinzer claimed that the incriminating video had recently been posted on YouTube.

Since that confrontation, organizers of the website have provided evidence that they shot the video in question five years ago, on April 7, 2006, and that it went onto YouTube immediately after.  Three of the site’s four organizers—Lisa Fancher, Grove Pashley and Burk Sauls—traveled from Los Angeles to visit Misskelley at the Varner Unit. At that time, they were also allowed to have a “contact visit” with Echols at the Supermax. Since then, contact visits have been banned for Death Row inmates, except for their immediate families.

Photos courtesy

If Meinzer believed that the video in question was indeed recent, the introduction of a video recording device inside a visitation cell with Echols would represent a monumental breakdown of Supermax security. If, on the other hand, the call to Meinzer’s office was a ruse to give guards an opportunity to search his cell, that much, at least, was accomplished.

Though no contraband was discovered in Echols’ cell, there are at least three reasons why tensions at the Varner complex are not likely to abate.

  1. As Tyler noted, the prison is one of the few in the state where, due to the building’s construction, cell phone use is possible.
  2. The source of the recently discovered bags of contraband remains unknown.
  3. And the wardens at Varner are among the system’s toughest.

Warden Jimmy Banks oversees the two-unit complex. Prior to this assignment, he was warden at the ADC’s unit near the town of Calico Rock. Meinzer, a major at the time, was Banks’ chief of security there.

In March and April of 2006, the Calico Rock Unit suffered a series of riots in which five inmates were injured. One man lost an eye. Then, as now, the ADC reported nothing about the riots until news of them was leaked.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette filed a number of Freedom of Information requests relating to the riots, and prison policies that may have spawned them. Those requests were denied. But documents were leaked to the paper by staff.

One of those documents recorded a meeting of the warden’s management team on the day of the second riot. In it, Banks instructed his staff: “When discussing [the incident] with outside individuals or entities, it should be with a positive spin.”

The paper quoted a former inmate at the unit as saying: “It seems like the Correction Department just thinks prison isn’t punishment enough. They really like to make it hard on you. And anything they can do to show you who is boss, they will find a way to do it.”

In a lengthy article after the riots ended, reporter Charlie Frago quoted “one veteran correctional officer at Calico Rock” who said the prison had become “a powder keg.”

“Our job is to try to maintain as civil an environment as we possibly can,” the officer told Frago. “But that’s impossible at Calico Rock. I’ve heard the major [Meinzer] say that he will blow the whole prison up before giving up one inch to an inmate.” He added: “Warden Banks and Maj. Meinzer have this attitude of escalation … of flexing muscle.”

At a meeting of the Arkansas Board of Correction after the 2006 riots, the board’s members, who are appointed by the governor to oversee the prisons, gave no indication that they knew anything about the uprising at Calico Rock. The riots were not mentioned. To the contrary, in a packet prepared for board members with reports from each of the units, Banks said all was well. “Inmate morale remains good,” he wrote. “Inmates are looking forward to, and signing up for, the upcoming softball season to begin next month.”

The ADC rewarded that policy of secrecy, spin and denial. Despite heading the Arkansas prison that saw the worst riots in a decade or more, Banks and Meinzer were promoted. Banks now heads the entire Varner complex, and Meinzer, now an assistant warden, runs the Supermax.[/private]

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