Gov. Asa Hutchinson approved late Friday a plan for moving the Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center in Pine Bluff to the former Crittenden County Hospital in West Memphis.
The transfer affects about 350 nonviolent female prisoners housed at the Pine Bluff unit and the 138 correctional officers, medical/counseling professionals and others who work there.
In the end, it was the expenditure of taxpayer dollars to both sites that weighed in the governor's decision.
The state Board of Corrections approved a measure March 15 for the Arkansas Community Correction agency to lease the vacant hospital from Crittenden County for $1 a year. Pine Bluff officials and two state legislators lobbied against the move, saying that neither the workers nor the unit's residents want to go. Only 10 to 15 percent of the workers are expected to take jobs at the new location.
Hutchinson said Friday in a letter to Arkansas Community Correction Director Sheila Sharp and Arkansas Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness that the agency would do all it can to meet the employment needs of those who would be taking the transfer and those who would not.
Specifically, the governor said Arkansas Community Correction would secure job vacancy listings for all state agencies in Pine Bluff and surrounding areas. The agency's staff will remain in contact with human resources directors of those agencies to assist displaced employees in applying for jobs for which they are qualified.
An employees assistance team including resource officers from other Arkansas Community Correction facilities would be available before and after each shift change to assist Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center workers in making the transition.
Workers were previously told they'd have no financial assistance in moving to West Memphis, but the governor's letter said some money might be available through the Arkansas Association of Correctional Employees Trust, a nonprofit employees benevolent association. In addition, the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services will move its mobile office to the Pine Bluff unit and stay "as long as necessary" to help employees apply for jobs and provide retraining, if requested, the governor said.
Arkansas Community Correction will help transferring employees find housing, schools and other services in West Memphis. For those who don't want to stay with community correction but are willing to go to West Memphis temporarily, housing will be available for them in West Memphis until they find other employment, said governor's spokesman J.R. Davis. Details about the temporary accommodations are being worked out.
"This is very much a fluid situation," Davis said.
In his letter to Sharp and Magness, Hutchinson outlined the reasons for his decision.
"The change in location is in the best interest of the state and its financial constraints," the governor said.
The Pine Bluff campus, which includes some 35 buildings, needs millions of dollars in upgrades and repairs to remain functional. The 50-year-old hospital in West Memphis' city center was built to accommodate 150 patients and can house at least four inmates to a room.
Money would have to be spent on the hospital, as well, though Arkansas Community Correction has said the work could be done for $650,000 -- the amount budgeted toward replacing the leaky roof of the gym at the Pine Bluff facility, where inmates have visitation. The old Crittenden County Hospital would need secure doors and windows, and surveillance equipment would have to be added. Repairs are also needed to fix some fire and water damage.
"The financial consideration of the state in leasing the facility and investing to retrofit it for community correction purpose outweighs expenditure of taxpayer dollars to mend the many flaws" at the Pine Bluff facility, Hutchinson said in his letter.
"To move the female residents of that facility to a single building where they may live and work toward rehabilitation under one roof, as well as to increase the likelihood that their services will be increased and enhanced, is an opportunity that the state must seize while it can," he said.
State Reps. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, and Ken Ferguson, D-Pine Bluff, who met with the governor Thursday, said in a statement that they respect the authority of the governor and his decision and "will closely review and observe the direct and indirect impact of the move to ensure all possible measures are taken to mitigate harm to our local economy and institutions."
"It would be an understatement to say that we are disappointed in this outcome and concerned about the impact that this move will have on the affected employees and residents as well as their respective families," Flowers said.
The hospital has been vacant since August of 2014, and Crittenden County, which has owned the hospital since it was built, has been paying about $30,000 to keep the power on and maintain the building and grounds.
Crittenden County Judge Woody Wheeless has said the county had spent upward of $1 million keeping up the facility.
"Over the past several years Crittenden County has had very little growth in the job sector," Wheeless said. "[The] 138 jobs are much needed in our county, and we welcome all the families from Pine Bluff that wish to relocate here."
State Desk on 03/26/2016