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WEST MEMPHIS -- The Crittenden County Quorum Court and the state Board of Corrections voted in separate meetings Tuesday to enter into a lease agreement that would allow the Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center to move its operation from Pine Bluff to the vacant Crittenden County Hospital in West Memphis.

The move means some 350 female, nonviolent offenders -- many of whom are being treated for addiction -- would be transferred to the West Memphis facility in as soon as 60 days, said Kevin Murphy, chief deputy director of Arkansas Community Correction, which oversees the Pine Bluff women's prison and five other low-security state detention centers.

The move will require approval from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. No legislative action is required because the Board of Corrections has statutory authority to close and open facilities, Murphy said.

"This move will save the state of Arkansas several million dollars," Murphy said.

The move also will displace 136 employees at the Pine Bluff lockup. Community Correction representatives told the Board of Corrections in a meeting Tuesday at the Northeast Arkansas Community Correction Center in Osceola that they will do everything they can to find those employees jobs with Community Correction or the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Murphy said he expects between 10 percent and 15 percent of those employed at Pine Bluff to make the move to West Memphis.

Pine Bluff officials fought to keep the correction center in the city. Mayor Debe Hollingsworth expressed opposition to the move last week and started a petition drive to appeal to the governor. She could not be reached Tuesday for comment about the lease agreement.

The move has been a hot-button issue in Jefferson and Crittenden counties. Pine Bluff officials wanted to keep the center in Jefferson County, while some West Memphis residents fought to keep it out of Crittenden County.

Crittenden County Quorum Court members voted 8-1 Tuesday morning in favor of the lease agreement during a three-hour meeting. Claude Steele voted against it, and four members were absent.

Residents spoke with passion both in favor and against leasing the former hospital to Community Correction.

Tammi Bell, a longtime West Memphis resident, said the Quorum Court moved too fast on the lease. She noted that homes with families and children, along with a day care and civic center, are located near the former hospital.

"I personally don't feel comfortable about this going here," she said. "I think rehab is great. I just don't want it in my city center."

Steve Lackey, a real estate developer in the area, was in favor of the lease agreement because of the lockup's expected economic benefits. The unit has an annual operating budget of about $6.8 million, including about $3.5 million in payroll, Murphy said.

"We need a shot in the arm in this county," Lackey said. "I wouldn't think of passing up an opportunity like this when the citizens of Jefferson County are fighting to keep it there. This is a no-brainer."

The three-story hospital has been unoccupied since it went bankrupt in August 2014. Crittenden County has owned the building since its construction more than 50 years ago and has spent more than $1 million to keep the lights on and maintain the building and grounds, according to County Judge Woody Wheeless.

Voters decided March 1 to direct funds toward building a new hospital in the city, and the Quorum Court had decided to pull the plug on the hospital March 1 until the Community Correction proposal surfaced.

The county will lease the hospital building to the state for 10 years for $1 a year. In return, the county is released of all maintenance and upkeep, which has amounted to $30,000 per month, according to Wheeless. The hospital campus includes a three-story professional building, which Community Correction will use for administrative offices. One floor of the former doctors' building could be leased to another state agency or to doctors who wish to return to the area, Murphy said.

The only change to the appearance of the hospital will be a privacy fence between the hospital and the professional building. That area will be used as a recreation area for the women housed there. The average stay by inmates is nine months, Murphy said.

Community Correction has occupied the Pine Bluff facility for 17 years. Officials began looking to move when it was determined that the facility needed upwards of $10 million in repairs.

Female inmates are spread out among 35 buildings in Pine Bluff; they can be housed under one roof in West Memphis. The hospital, which was built to accommodate 150 patients, can house at least four inmates to a room.

Community Correction will need to replace hospital doors with ones that are more secure, windows will have to be screwed shut from the outside, a part of the roof will have to be replaced and damage from a fire at the hospital will have to be repaired. The county has already been working on the fire-damaged area.

The cost to renovate the hospital is expected to be within the $650,000 budgeted by the state to repair the roof of the gymnasium at the Pine Bluff compound. The gym, where visitation is held on weekends, leaks and the air conditioning is inoperable, which requires visitation to be limited in the hot summer months. The $650,000 allotted to fix the roof isn't enough to cover the cost, prison officials have said.

Male inmates from Osceola would be utilized to renovate the Crittenden County Hospital, saving taxpayers money, Murphy said.

State Desk on 03/16/2016

Print Headline: W. Memphis' shut hospital seen as lockup

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