PINE BLUFF -- The Arkansas Department of Correction is in negotiations with two southern counties to house prisoners at a proposed regional jail that would be privately owned, department director Wendy Kelley told legislators Friday.
Kelley confirmed the news at a meeting of the Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions Subcommittee after its co-chairman, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, asked if the rumors about the private jail were true. The panel, a subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council, met at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
"It's a little troublesome that we are talking about moving to something I think is highly immoral," Elliott said. "I would really like [the Correction Department] to be very, very thoughtful. I think the Legislature should have a discussion about this."
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, echoed Elliott's concerns about legislative review.
"If the Department of Correction enters into a contract with a private provider, it requires legislative review," Chesterfield said.
Kelley explained that the Department of Correction is not entering into a contract with the private company, but with the two counties -- Bradley and Drew -- involved, and therefore legislative approval isn't required.
"But you're saying that they're asking you to send people there, which means that you're using state money to send people to a private company," Chesterfield said. "Would that not require some legislative oversight?"
In an interview after the meeting, Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness said that in its July meeting, the board gave Kelley and him the go-ahead to negotiate the terms of agreement for the proposed regional jail facility.
"We're not contracting the private provider. We're contracting with the counties," Magness said.
Lawyers with the Department of Correction are working with the counties to hammer out the details and the requirements for the private contractor -- LaSalle Corrections, based in Louisiana -- to house state prisoners at the proposed jail, Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves said after the meeting.
Counties must meet certain standards, such as adequate health care and dietary rules, that are set by the Department of Correction in order to hold state inmates.
"While there have been multiple conversations, we have not reached final terms between all parties," Graves said in an email. "Once terms are reached, a final agreement will be brought back to the Board for review and approval."
The privately run jail would house about 450 state inmates and provide about 50 beds for Arkansas Community Correction, Magness said. A certain number of beds would be reserved for each of the participating counties.
The jail will be built to hold 660 and placed "somewhere" in Drew or Bradley County, Robert Akin, Drew County's county judge, said in an interview.
About 330 prisoners now housed in the Bowie County lockup in Texarkana, Texas, would be moved to the private jail, Graves said.
"We realize that it is a challenge for some families to travel to Texas in order to visit their loved ones," Graves said. "In-state housing is our preference whenever possible and prudent."
The state prison system has about 16,000 inmates.
Statewide interest in regional jails began in 2015 after Act 1206 was passed allowing counties to contract with the state for up to 20 years to house prisoners.
"We are pursuing the regional jail concept based upon that legislative authority," said Gov. Asa Hutchinson. "In terms of the contract's approval, we will comply with the law as it relates to the standard procurement process."
The regional jail in south Arkansas was first discussed in the summer of 2017 when county judges from five counties -- Drew, Bradley, Lincoln, Chicot and Cleveland -- tossed the idea around, but talks stalled and three counties dropped out.
Akin said the agreement with the Department of Correction is only "tentative at this point." If the prison backs out, though, the deal will be dead in the water, he added.
"It won't exist if [the Correction Department] doesn't come through," Akin said.
Who pays for the construction would depend on the contract that the counties and the private contractor reach.
"We've looked at possible sites, but until [the Correction Department] comes through and says, ' OK, yes,' then they're not going to put the money down or incur engineering costs," Akin said.
A privately run regional jail makes sense financially for the counties as well as the state prison system, said Drew County Treasurer Charlie Searcy.
"It all boils down to dollars and cents. Right now, we're spending about $60 a prisoner," Searcy said. "We can house them in a private facility for $30. It cuts our bottom line for our budget about in half."
It costs the state about $61 per day to house a prisoner, Graves said.
Elliott said in an interview after the meeting that there's "something that is very, very morally unsettling to make money on the backs of prisoners."
"Rehabilitating people and preparing them for society should never be informed by a profit motive," Elliott said. "It should be informed by restoring people and making sure they pay for their crimes."
Elliott said that when she asked Kelley in the meeting about the private jail she wasn't aware that the negotiations were already in play.
"I thought we were just getting something off the table, checking the box," she said. "I wanted to stop the rumor right there."
The senator said she's going to review the agreement and get more details.
"We need to talk to the governor about it," Elliott said. "I don't understand how and where it got started or how [the Correction Department] became a party to it."
Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, chided Kelley at the meeting and asked that the legislators be kept more in the loop.
"The arrangement itself may cause us a problem, this private situation," Murdock said. "I guess what I'm asking, as these conversations even start, we want to be a part of those conversations to make sure we are at the table. I'm talking about the whole Legislature."
Graves said after the meeting that the proposal will continue to be negotiated.
"At the proper time executed, in a manner consistent with state law after Board of Corrections' approval," he said. "This includes any required executive and legislative review."
Metro on 09/29/2018
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