Five inmates were found dead in their cells at southeastern Arkansas’ Varner Unit prison during a four-day period in late August, three of them in a single day.
The Arkansas Department of Corrections (DOC) announced that, between the morning of Sunday, August 26 and early hours of the next day, inmates Edward Morris, 34, Stephan Kantzer, 38, and Marlon Miles, 41, were pronounced dead. No cause of death was announced for any of the three, but the DOC, state police, and the state’s crime lab are all investigating.
The bodies of Morris and Miles were found in separate cells in the prison’s highest-security Supermax unit; Kantzer was found dead in his cell on the other side of the prison, where the general population is housed.
James DePriest, a DOC lawyer and spokesman, conceded it would be “hard to believe” three deaths in previously healthy, relatively young inmates within 24 hours could be a matter of coincidence and admitted the agency suspected they were drug-related.
Several days later, two more inmates were found dead: Donovan Cobbs, 26, and Joe Harris, 55, were found unresponsive in their cells in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, August 29, and were pronounced dead shortly after that.
DOC spokesman DePriest also disclosed that around a dozen other inmates in the same prison had received medical attention the previous Saturday and Sunday for suspected symptoms of adverse drug reactions, though none of those inmates was among the five fatalities and none required admission into a hospital.
Calling drug contraband “of great concern,” DePriest said DOC had experienced an average of 100 K2-related incidents per month last year, including about 15 deaths during the year, but thought it was making progress this year in controlling the drug.
The facility installed new cameras and body scanners for use on both staff and visitors posted warnings on the drug’s dangers and threatened arrest of anyone found to possess it to prevent the transfer of contraband drugs. The prison had also put in place new restrictions on incoming mail to inmates, since the drug can be dissolved in a liquid which can be soaked up in paper or envelopes, then recovered out of those items by inmates.
The Arkansas prison system counts as a K2 related incident when prison officials discover the substance at a prison facility or find an inmate who appears to be under its influence.
Systemwide, DOC counted 468 K2-related incidents thus far this year, not counting the most recent five deaths and a dozen or so inmates treated for signs of reactions to the drug. Despite containing the state’s highest-security facility, the Varner facility had the most incidents thus far this year, with a total of 32, (again excluding the late August deaths and illnesses).
The Arkansas corrections system has had difficulty keeping out contraband drugs, particularly K2, a dangerous and difficult to detect the synthetic form of marijuana. In June, Wendy Kelley, the director of state prisons, testified on that subject to state legislators. At that time, she claimed K2-related incidents had dropped systemwide from 95 a month last year to 63 per month this year.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.