Tuesday, September 23, 2014

TOP STORY >> Cabot ends prison labor in schools

Leader editor-in-chief

After a report here Saturday that a convicted murderer worked at Cabot Junior High North last week as a prison trustee, school officials decided Monday to ban prison labor in the district.

“We will not approve any trustees to work in our district,” Superintendent Tony Thurman told us. “It will not matter if we are in session or not.”

The decision came after our report raised concerns across the state about felons working in schools without the knowledge of parents and school administrators.

The Department of Correction board of directors voted Monday morning to end a 30-year-old policy that allowed killers to work in schools.

The change in policy came about after we reported that Glen Martin Green, 60, a murderer who is serving a life sentence without parole in the Tucker Unit, had been installing gym equipment at the Cabot school.

Green pleaded guilty to the murder of a Gravel Ridge woman in 1974.

He was also accused of sexually assaulting his victim, 18-year-old Helen Lynette Spencer. She was kidnapped from Little Rock Air Force Base, brutally beaten and tossed into a creek off Graham Road in Lonoke County.

Even under the old lax prison policy, sex offenders weren’t supposed to work in schools.

Inmates install equipment and furniture in schools all over Arkansas. The prison department’s Arkansas Correctional Industries this year has sold $8,131,118 in goods and services to schools and other organizations.

Last school year, ACI sent inmates to 68 schools around the state, including the Pulaski County Special School District, Lonoke Middle School and the Arkansas School for the Blind.

Just last month, the North Little Rock School District used prison labor along with more than 40 other districts.

The Carlisle and Beebe school districts were among the districts we contacted this week. They said they are not using prison labor.

PCSSD and Lonoke apparently have stopped using inmates in their schools.

“PCSSD does not hire anyone who has a felony, which would mean serving time in prison. We have no program where we recruit or hire prisoners,” said Deborah Roush, PCSSD spokeswoman.

Beebe Superintendent Belinda Shook said, “We have never had prisoners working in the last 10 years, and I don’t remember any before that.”

ACI also works on military facilities, including Camp Robinson and Fort Chaffee, and repairs fire trucks for volunteer fire departments.

Bobby Glover, a member of the prison board and a former longtime legislator from Carlisle, said he didn’t know schools were using inmate labor.

“I was unaware it was allowed,” he told us. “It caught me by surprise.”

Glover, an expert on state prisons who toughened parole rules when he was in the legislature, said he complained to prison board chairman Benny Magness after we reported about Green working at the school.

Glover said prisoners are used at the state Capitol and at the governor’s mansion, where they’re under armed guard.

But we shouldn’t put children’s lives at risk, Glover said. He insisted that sending inmates to schools is inexcusable, even if the guards were armed.

“This should never have happened under any circumstances,” he said. “I was real upset when I found out about it. Under no circumstances should an individual convicted of murder, rape and kidnapping set foot on our school property.”

Lonoke County Prosecuting Attorney Chuck Graham says he’s not impressed with the state’s new prison policy, which still allows many violent felons into schools.

He does not want any prisoners in schools at any time and is checking with schools in his judicial districts to see if they have used prison labor.

Graham was stunned when he heard Green was at the Cabot school last week.

The prosecutor says, if he had his way, all criminals would be barred from schools across the state.

“It doesn’t make any sense to have anybody from the Arkansas Department of Corrections working in our schools,” Graham insisted.

“I can’t believe they’re OK with any inmates on campus,” Graham told us.

Parents haven’t known about the prison labor because school districts keep their relationship with ACI as quiet as possible. Often, at school board meetings, expenditures for ACI are not spelled out as going to the prison industries.

Also, school officials assume the inmates are nonviolent.

“It never dawned on me or any of our administrators that they would allow someone with that type of criminal history in or near a school. I would never have allowed that to happen,” Thurman told us.

Thurman, who has two children in school, was glad the prison board changed its longtime policy.

“It’s also good that there was not a major incident that caused the change to be implemented,” he told us. “This guy was in a lot of other schools. The good news is that it has stopped immediately.”

Thurman emphasized that Cabot was not the only district that had ever used ACI. “I’m not making excuses,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job. He should have never been in our district or any other, but it was commonplace. Thanks to a lot of work this weekend, a lot of positive change has occurred that will impact students and staff across our state.”

Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley said the story hit close to home.

“When I heard this, I was immediately upset. My daughter attends the school. I know Dr. Thurman, and I truly believe, if he would have known the horrid acts this monster committed, he would not have allowed him on the school campus. The warden over that prison should never have allowed a monster like this to leave the prison. It was not just our school this man has been in or around.

“I agree with working inmates. Any nonviolent offenders should be worked, but they shouldn’t be around our kids. Violent offenders can be worked but shouldn’t be off the complex without armed guards and should never be around children.

“This inmate should never be off the prison complex without shackles and cuffs. Life without parole should be life without parole.

“After speaking with Dr. Thurman, I feel confident that this was as surprising to him as it was to myself. Who would dream any warden or jail supervisor would put a monster like this on a trustee work crew?” Staley said.