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LITTLE ROCK — The head of Arkansas’ prison system said Monday she’s retiring at the end of July after more than 2,300 inmates have been infected with the coronavirus.
Arkansas Department of Corrections Secretary Wendy Kelley announced her retirement at a state Board of Corrections meeting. Kelley served as the director of the Department of Correction from January 2015 until July 2019, when Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson named her secretary overseeing a reorganized department that now includes the probation and parole system.
“It has been my honor to serve this department because of you,” she wrote in an email to the department’s staff Monday. “I have been so blessed to work with you all! … Modeling a positive work ethic, positive communication skills, encouraging offenders to think about the legacy they are creating, and treating everyone with respect are what I have enjoyed watching you all do.”
Kelley is leaving the department after an outbreak of coronavirus at prison facilities, primarily the Cummins Unit. Kelley warned at a news conference in April that if the virus got into one of the state’s facilities, “it will be disastrous.” Thirteen inmates have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Kelley also oversaw the state’s prison system when Arkansas resumed executions in 2017 with a plan to put eight inmates to death before its supply of a lethal injection drug expired. The state ultimately executed four men.
Hutchinson credited Kelley with increasing the state’s prison capacity and reducing the backup of state inmates in county jails.
“Wendy has been an incredibly valuable member of my team and I will miss her experience and leadership in one of the most challenging arenas of state government,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “She cares about this state and the inmates that are within her responsibility.”
The coronavirus outbreak prompted inmates to sue the state, claiming the prison system wasn’t doing enough to halt the spread of the virus. A federal judge last month rejected the inmates’ request to force the state to take additional steps, including releasing those at high risk of contracting the virus.
The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which represents the inmates, said the outbreak was a deeper problem than Kelley’s leadership, noting that the state needs to do more to protect its inmates and correctional workers.
“There’s plenty of blame to go around here,” said Holly Dickson, the ACLU of Arkansas’ legal director and interim executive director.
The department did not immediately say who would serve as interim secretary following Kelley’s retirement.
“She’s been really, really good for the state of Arkansas as the first Secretary of Corrections under the new format,” Benny Magness, chairman of the Board of Corrections, said in a statement. “She will be hard to replace, but we respect her desire to spend more time with her family.”
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