LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A former chief of staff for Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas faces felony charges accusing her of trying to smuggle a knife and 48 tattoo needles onto the state's death row.
The charges against Betsey Wright come as The Associated Press obtained documents showing death-row inmate allegedly passed love letters and contraband to a guard with whom he committed a sex act. Combined, the events represent just the latest in a series of high-profile incidents at the state prison system, ranging from two convicted murderers escaping in guard uniforms to a man being shot to death at a contraband checkpoint.
Wright, a longtime visitor to death row at the state's Varner Unit, was arrested May 22 after a guard noticed a small knife and a box cutter attached to her key chain, said prison spokeswoman Dina Tyler. A loose ink pen she had contained tweezers with sharpened edges, Tyler said. Inside a bag of Doritos, the guard found 48 tattoo needles.
In an interview with the AP, Wright denied the charges against her.
"They think it's me, but it's not," Wright said. "I certainly did not do what they have charged me with."
Prosecutors file 51 charges
An Arkansas State Police report shows Wright claimed she found the Doritos bag lying in the bottom of a vending machine at the prison and told guards, "I guess you don't get nothing free."
Prosecutors filed the 51 charges Tuesday against Wright, who is expected to turn herself in to authorities in the coming days. Prosecutors say a court hearing will be set after that.
Wright, 66, of Rogers, Ark., is a vocal death penalty opponent who served as chief of staff for Clinton, who presided over four executions as governor. During his 1992 presidential campaign, Wright handled what she described as the "bimbo eruptions" — rumors that Clinton had had extramarital affairs.
After Clinton became president, Wright worked at a lobbying firm in Washington before returning to Arkansas.
Tyler said Wright never had the knife or the box cutter attached to her keys during her regular visits to the Varner Unit, located about 90 miles southeast of Little Rock.
The spokeswoman said homemade tattoos represent one of the fastest ways to spread hepatitis.
"Inside of a prison, not only could (tattoo needles) potentially be a weapon, but they most definitely can be a health hazard," Tyler said.
Love letters and crackers
Meanwhile, a state Freedom of Information Act request by the AP uncovered details of the firing of Varner Unit guard Danita Williams in July. A letter by the warden claimed she helped the unnamed death-row inmate trade crackers in a laundry bag for soup from another prisoner. However, an internal investigation uncovered allegations that a romantic relationship between Williams and the inmate began at least in April as she guarded him during the graveyard shift.
An anonymous letter reached chief prison deputy director Ray Hobbs on May 29 and another, more detailed letter surfaced in June, alleging Williams had an inappropriate relationship with the inmate, the internal report reads.
The second letter claimed the death-row inmate performed a sex act with Williams during the April 28 night shift.
The detailed letter alleged other guards delivered love letters from the inmate to Williams, that Williams personally delivered a package to him and that she ferried a pillow case carrying goods from the commissary for the inmate, the report reads. The anonymous tipster also told officials that surveillance camera footage would confirm the allegations.
The internal affairs report by prison investigator Ronald Vilches shows a prison lieutenant noticed Williams' request to guard the inmate's area April 23. Vilches wrote that Williams "went straight" to the inmate's cell. The lieutenant also said Williams admitted passing the laundry bag full of goods to another inmate.
During the investigation, Vilches wrote that another official told him Williams already was subject to disciplinary action over passing goods among inmates. However, Vilches said he found no paper record of any action; instead she apparently received only a verbal reprimand.
"Both this investigator and (Warden Grant) Harris were amazed since trafficking and trading carries a punishment of termination," Vilches wrote in his report.
Harris fired Williams, an entry-level guard, on July 7.
"When I asked you if this constituted 'trafficking and trading' you stated that it did," Harris wrote in Williams' termination letter. "I then asked you why you would engage in such behavior and you had no response."
A telephone number for Williams could not be found Wednesday. Prison officials redacted Williams' address and hometown from the discipline reports.
Tyler said she didn't know why prison supervisors didn't issue Williams a written reprimand. The spokeswoman said investigators uncovered no evidence to substantiate the allegations of a sex act on death row, a three-level cell block where inmates remain housed in solitary cells behind solid metal doors.
No other guards or supervisors were disciplined over that alleged incident, Tyler said.
Problems with security
Security on death row has been a problem in the past. In 1995, when the state's Tucker Unit held death-row inmates, a State Police investigation found a massive smuggling operation. State troopers found contraband including a priest's cassock, weapons, gunpowder, syringes and a greeting card with marijuana leaves on it. The investigation began after the discovery of a hole between two cells, which an inmate allegedly used to sexually assault another inmate.
Prison officials moved death row to a maximum-security lockup at the Varner Unit in 2003.
Forty men await lethal injection for killings dating as far back as 1989. The state's death chamber remains nearby at the Cummins Unit.
State lawmakers visited the Cummins Unit last week as part of their inquiry into complacency among guards at the 20-prison system after the recent incidents. Sen. Bobby Glover, who heads a legislative panel overseeing the prison, questioned why prison administrators didn't quickly inform legislators about the incidents.
"Things like this happen and they don't reveal it and they keep it to themselves," said Glover, D-Carlisle. "Then you begin to wonder what other incidents have occurred that they didn't report to the public and the governor."
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, who has been critical of the board and the department's director, said he wasn't surprised by the latest report or the fact that it wasn't mentioned to lawmakers.
"If the Department of Correction wants the Legislature and the public to trust them, then they need to act in a manner that's appropriate for us to give them that trust," Burris said. "So far they haven't."
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