OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Same old circus

Gov. Sarah Sanders seems to prefer derision to solution. So it's a happy Christmas for her.

She gets to sneer and say "catch and release" while she manufactures something between a dust-up and a constitutional crisis in the state prison.

It's closer to a dust-up, so far. It would be laughable except for the absence of humor.

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"Catch and release" is from fishing. You net 'em, look 'em over, yank out the hook and put 'em back in the water.

In right-wing political cant, it means the practice of detaining lawbreakers and signing them back out onto the street because there is no space in the local jail on account of the state prisons being backed up.

It is a decades-old problem, going back at least to the early 1980s when Sanders' much-older twin brother, then-Sheriff Tommy Robinson, hauled prisoners from his jail to the state prison fence and left them there chained.

Sarah has not done that--yet--because she is more evolved. She has worked over the years with a sophisticated New Yorker.

All she did was get her minion legislators to pass two bills. One made her choice for cabinet secretary on prisons, a guy named Joe Profiri who was imported from controversy over prison overcrowding and prisoner treatment in Arizona, answerable only to her. The other made the prison department directors answerable to him.

That meant she was presuming to remove any power and responsibility from the state Corrections Board although Amendment 33 to the state Constitution, dating to 1942, seems by the words in it to ban any gubernatorial erosion of board powers.

Then her Arizona-imported corrections secretary sprung on the prison board plans to open hundreds of new beds in five prison facilities. The board approved a small part of it and tabled the rest on the basis that, while the relief for counties was much needed, the prisons didn't have enough guards for what they were housing already.

Prison guards are hard to hire and harder to keep. It's not enjoyable work. And you usually need to move to isolated areas to take the jobs. Southeast Arkansas prisons have run vans into Mississippi looking for willing guards and failed even to scare up many Mississippians that desperate for work.

Arkansas ought to know from history, if anyone bothered with it, that prison overcrowding with insufficient staffing can lead to inmate unrest, lost federal lawsuits and ensuing federal oversight.

And that doesn't solve your county jail backup problem. It worsens it.

Upon the prison board's thinking for itself and not kowtowing instantly to her sudden command, Sanders called a news conference and sneered at "catch and release," assailed the board members (most political supporters of her) for being weak on crimefighting, then ordered them to have a special meeting and concede to her.

When they didn't, and when they approved only another small part of her secretary's proposal, she declared with the backing of Attorney General Tim Griffin that she'd just do it anyway.

Her prison guy, Profiri, professed to have an emergency plan to re-deploy existing staff people to keep an adequate watch on these new inmates. Possibly the cook would take a shift during oven pre-heating. The laundry guy would walk a row during the rinse cycle. Everybody would work overtime.

What could go wrong? How hard is it to watch prison inmates sleep? What's a few more hours on one's feet? Who's going to quit over that?

The prison board went into executive session and hired its own outside lawyer--Griffin being of no use--to defend its constitutional authority and sue to strike down the two laws Sanders passed.

Then it called itself into a special meeting to suspend Profiri indefinitely with pay. After all, it couldn't very well keep a man under authority it was litigating against.

Profiri first said he'd keep working, but then he didn't show up. Later that day, a Pulaski County judge granted the prison board's request for a temporary restraining order to bar enforcement of those two laws while the suit was decided.

If all goes according to form--that form being that justice is not blind because it is able to see and distinguish red and blue--Pulaski County judges will rule against Sanders under the law, and Republicans dominating the state Supreme Court will have her back under the state GOP manual.

All will be well. People of means will still get their kids' private-school tuition paid by taxpayers. Jason Rapert will still be protecting us from books he doesn't like.

And there is enough Republican presence in and around the state Division of Legislative Audit to find that $19,000 is a bargain for a lectern.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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