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The boot camp program run for more than 20 years by the Arkansas Department of Correction will cease after its current roster of inmates complete the course, the Board of Corrections decided Wednesday.

The program, created to enforce military-style discipline with inmates before their release, was plagued by high rates of recidivism and a number of empty beds, even as prisons across the state faced overcrowding, Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley said. The department said in its report that Arkansas was one of 13 states still operating boot camps.

Kelley sought the board's permission Wednesday to end the program or move it to a smaller facility, while filling the boot camp unit's beds with work-release prisoners from other prisons. The board unanimously decided to suspend the program while allowing the 86 men and women now enrolled to finish if they want to.

The Boot Camp Facility, located near the Tucker Unit, has space for 100 men and 24 women. However, both have had vacancies. Candidates must be first-time nonviolent offenders without a record of failing drug-treatment programs and with medical clearance. Some of those who do qualify, Kelley said, don't want to participate in the rigorous program.

The program takes 105 days to complete. Participants do not have access to amenities they would have in regular housing, such as televisions and commissary accounts. Prison spokesman Solomon Graves said the department had "all but eliminated military-style marching and the [physical training] portion," but the beds still could not be filled.

"For some people it does work," Kelley said, "But for those same people that it works for, we believe Geared For Success, or the [work release] program, or something else that we have, will work."

After the current class moves out, the board approved a plan to convert the lockup into a women's work-release and re-entry into society center. The unit will absorb 54 work-release prisoners from the Pine Bluff Re-entry Center, and the remaining boot camp beds will be used to expand the department's re-entry program for women, Graves said.

Male prisoners in a work release program at the Pine Bluff Unit will then use the Pine Bluff Re-entry Center.

The reshuffling will result in the net loss of 46 available beds for male prisoners, Graves said, while noting that the loss would be lessened by increasing the efficiency of available beds that were not being used.

The state's prison population has grown by a third in the past decade and totaled more than 18,000 inmates in July, with the population projected to reach more than 21,000 by 2023.

The backlog of state prisoners housed in county jails averaged 1,328 last month, and prisons are being renovated to add more beds. On Wednesday, the board also gave its approval for a department request for a $39.2 million expansion of the North Central Unit in Calico Rock to add 576 beds. The request must be approved and funded by the state Legislature.

According to a Department of Correction report, Arkansas' boot camp program was started in response to similar programs that began in other states, and reached the peak of their popularity in the 1990s as a way to reduce prison populations by attacking recidivism.

Established by Act 492 of 1989, the program received its first 60 inmates at the Wrightsville Unit the next year. The year after that it was expanded by 40 beds, and in 1994 women were added to the program, taking its total capacity to 180.

In 1996, the program reported a recidivism rate of 16.7 percent among participants, but that number had ballooned to more than 62 percent in 2012, when the rate for standard parolees was 58 percent. In 2014, the department moved the unit to Tucker and reduced it to its current size.

A study by the National Institute of Justice, cited by the Arkansas Department of Correction, found that a third of prison boot camps in other states had closed by 2000. The study found that while the camps improved prisoners' skills and behavior, they generally did not reduce recidivism rates.

Metro on 08/25/2016

Print Headline: Prison system to shut down its boot camp; Not popular with inmates, recidivism high, board told

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