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Stricter Drug Penalties Following Rise In Prison Deaths, Corrections Department Says

Daniel Breen
Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Board of Corrections member Rev. Tyrone Broomfield listens to questions from members of the state Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions legislative subcommittee.

Arkansas prison officials say they're open to the legislature's help following the deaths of five inmates at the Varner Unit last week. 

Officials from the Arkansas Department of Correction and the state Board of Corrections testified at a joint legislative subcommittee hearing Tuesday on efforts to curb deaths due to illegal drug usage in state prisons. 

Five inmates were found dead within a four-day span at the Department of Correction's Varner Unit prison southeast of Pine Bluff. Officials say the deaths were likely caused by K2, a synthetic drug that mimics the effects of marijuana. 

Correction Department spokesman Solomon Graves said the agency will suggest imposing stricter penalties for the drug, which shares a classification with marijuana. 

"It should not be a Schedule VI drug. K2 has no redeeming qualities. Our hope is that if we can increase the penalties for the drug, it will increase the deterrent value," Graves said. 

When asked whether the recent deaths would merit an outside audit of prison rules and regulations, Graves said any partnership would need to be discussed with the Board of Corrections and Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

The latest surge in overdose deaths isn't wholly unanticipated — department officials say 13 inmates died from complications related to using K2 last year. So far this year, 13 inmates have died of drug overdoses in Arkansas prisons with six of those deaths confirmed as related to K2. 

Last year, the department banned inmates from receiving original pieces of mail after discovering paper laced with K2. Inmates now receive copies of mail. Officials also highlighted the need for better control of smuggled cell phones, which are used to facilitate drug transactions in prisons. 

In addition, around $800,000 has been spent to upgrade body scanners visitors to prisons walk through. 

According to the department, around 790 beds are available for treating the approximately 85 percent of prison inmates with drug addictions. 

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter for Arkansas Public Media.
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