Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Arkansas Sheriff Bent on "Saving" Prisoners

Arkansas Sheriff Bent on "Saving" Prisoners

They call him "Sheriff Andy," you know, just like the TV show. But if your butt lands in Sheriff Andy Lee's Benton County (Arkansas) jail, you won't think you're stuck in a Mayberry R.F.D. rerun. More like held captive on the Christian cable channel.

Lee and some local ministers have literally turned the county jail into a missionary with bars. More than 150 prisoners, for example, were baptized in a watering trough once used by thirsty farm animals.

The Rev. John Lightsey, who coordinates the jail's ministry program, contracted hepatitis B in June, 1998. Some prisoners had fought before the baptisms, Lightsey said, and blood, dead skin and sweat mixed with the water in the cow trough. Lightsey believes that might have caused his illness.

Although he had to take time off from his jail ministry because of his illness, Lightsey said that a little bout of hepatitis wouldn't stop him from resuming the baptisms when he returned to the jail.

And while Lightsey recovered from his hepatitis, "Sheriff Andy" was trying to recover from a lawsuit. Former county prisoner Jeremy Ashford filed the suit April 22, 1998, one day after the sheriff nailed a copy of the Ten Commandments to the wall and called them the jail's rules.

"I just feel like we need to get back to the basic of principles of what this country is all about, and that's religion," said Lee, a former Washington, D.C. undercover police officer. "We're not going to force it on you, but we're sure going to offer it."

But Ashford and his attorney say the long arm of the law shouldn't be attached to the hand of God.

"What do you do if the guy is not believing in God like you want?" said Ashford's attorney, Doug Norwood. "Are you going to put them on bread and water?"

In July, 1998, Circuit Judge David Clinger awarded Ashford $1 in damages and ruled that Sheriff Lee can post a revised set of jail rules "based" on the Ten Commandments. Ashford vowed to file a civil rights suit in federal court, and Norwood said he would seek class-action status.

The sheriff promised to post the Ten Commandments in the brand new $14.5 million Benton County jail -- not far from Wal-Mart's massive world headquarters complex. Lee said the new jail will feature a built-in baptism pool and three large rooms for religious services and related functions.

Tax dollars, the sheriff insists, are not paying for religion. The baptism pool was donated by the First Christian Church in Bella Vista, Arkansas. But if the pool had not been donated, Lee quickly added, "I'd buy it even with tax dollars, because it's successful."

Part of Lee's plan for success involves banning a long list of items from his jail: No TV, no radio, no tobacco, no chewing gum, no coffee, no tea. Lee believes offenders must be punished before they can be rehabilitated.

The sheriff says he's "not a barbaric person, but some people need to be treated barbarically." Still, the prisoners deserve "the opportunity to meet their creator," said Lee, a Presbyterian.

Knight Ridder News Service, Associated Press

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login