Investigators from U.S. Department of Justice are set to arrive at the McPherson Correctional facility in Newport later this month. The probe of the women's prison is looking into allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct.
Cathy Frye, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Correction, says the state is doing what it can to assist with the investigation.
“We have absolutely zero tolerance for sexual abuse, assault, harassment or misconduct. We have asked the Justice Department to share the allegations so we can investigate and take immediate action,” Frye said.
In May, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that Arkansas would not assure its future compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act standards. Arkansas is one of five states to not guarantee compliance, according to the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Although Arkansas is already abiding by most of the standards, state officials see no way of following one in particular. Per PREA, officers in cross-gender facilities are only allowed to perform pat-down searches on inmates of the same sex.
Frye cites a 1995 equal employment lawsuit that cost the state $7.2 million.
“It puts us in a bind. We don't want to discriminate against our staff, but at the same time it puts us in the position of not being able to come fully into compliance with PREA.”
General staffing also limits the state's ability to comply, Fry said.
“We just don't have the labor pool available. Especially at our rural units, even if we weren't worried about gender discrimination, trying to staff these units and be in compliance with that particular standard is just problematic.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that more than 200,000 people are sexually assaulted in American prison each year.
Jesse Lerner-Kinglake with Just Detention International, a prisoner advocacy group, says this part of the law has a large role in lowering that number.
“About half of all sexual abuse in detention is committed by staff- the people who are entrusted with the goal of keeping people safe,” Lerner-Kinglake said.
Arkansas could face 5% cuts on three grants it receives from the Department of Justice for its noncompliance with PREA standards.