LITTLE ROCK — Cities and counties throughout Arkansas are deciding whether to join the running for a proposed $100 million maximum-security prison, which would bring to town some of the state's most difficult inmates, but hundreds of new jobs.
The Arkansas Department of Correction has given communities until Oct. 24 to submit paperwork if they want to host the new prison, which officials say is needed to accommodate the fast-growing inmate population. The agency hopes to have a firm proposal in hand when it goes to the Legislature early next year to ask for the funding needed to build it.
If funding is approved, the prison is expected to employ 250 people with an average hourly salary of $12.75. It could be expanded to eventually include 500 jobs with an annual operating budget of $38 million.
Among the communities in the planning stages of submitting proposals are Magnolia, near the Louisiana border, and Lawrence County in northeast Arkansas.
"We are so low in economic development," Lawrence County Judge Dale Freeman said. "This would be like pouring a 10-gallon of gas on something and setting it on fire."
A state prison review committee has recommended that the new prison have a maximum-security rating, aimed at housing inmates who are "causing constant disruption in the general population," Board of Correction vice chairman Mary Parker said last week. The prison would include 1,000 one-man and two-man cells, with extra space set aside for 200 isolation units.
The facility also should be built on a large enough space to house all support services because most inmates wouldn't be suitable to work outside the prison fence, even with constant supervision, the committee's report said.
In Magnolia, the economic impact would outweigh concerns about dangerous inmates, said Cammie Hambrice, executive director of the Magnolia Economic Development Corp.
"We really haven't gotten a lot of negative feedback to those that we've asked — and I've been asking," Hambrice said.
Magnolia is now working to put together paperwork expressing interest in the new prison, she said.
The forms from the Department of Correction ask communities for details on population, workforce education levels and distances to the nearest interstate, major highway and major airport, among other things.
"We just feel like we always have to be looking for jobs for south Arkansas," Hambrice said. "I think it would be a huge economic development impact. It would bring more people moving to our part of the state."
In Lawrence County, officials are touting a site near Walnut Ridge, which has two colleges and an airport with three runways. Freeman said he was initially hesitant, but said he's heard overwhelming support from the community so far.
"Our tax base has went to nothing," he said. "We had some factories here years ago and they all packed up and went overseas. ... This right here could mean more to Lawrence County than any other county I know of."