Proposed regional jail facility in southeast Arkansas stalls

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A proposed regional jail facility in southeast Arkansas that would be operated by a private company and would house up to 500 state inmates hasn't broken ground yet.

In December 2019, Arkansas' Legislative Council signed off on an $8.1 million-a-year contract to house inmates at a future regional jail in either Bradley or Drew county. The intergovernmental agreement was projected to cost the state more than $163 million over the 20-year contract.

Officials in both counties had signed a deal in November 2019 with Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections that called for the private company to pay for the construction and operation of the jail. The facility was scheduled to open Jan. 1, 2022, but the doors aren't open and it appears that won't change anytime soon.

"We don't have a current estimated completion time," LaSalle Corrections official James McCormick said Wednesday.

McCormick added that the company hadn't decided on a location, either.

During a subcommittee meeting Monday, legislators questioned Arkansas Department of Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves on whether the proposed jail could be an answer to the state's prison-overcrowding problems.

"Whenever it comes online, yes, it could help," Graves told committee members.

Cindy Murphy, a spokeswoman with the Department of Corrections, said the department hasn't received any updates on the status of the regional jail facility.

Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, a Bradley County resident and longtime supporter of the project, said Wednesday that he didn't have a lot of information on the project but that some things had changed.

"Some stuff happened with [President Joe] Biden's order with private prisons to go along with the pandemic and other stuff, so that is being worked out at the moment," Wardlaw said.

Concerns about prison overcrowding have been expressed by legislators and Gov. Asa Hutchinson in recent months after sheriffs from across the state complained about overcrowding within their facilities because of the backup of state prisoners who are being held at the jails. Sheriffs have said the overflow creates an unsafe environment for county jail employees.

Citing a 10-year projection of inmate population growth, Hutchinson said in February that he wanted to use surplus general revenue to expand the North Central Unit in Calico Rock by about 498 beds. In March, the governor said $75 million had been set aside for that expansion.

Wardlaw said the LaSalle facility wouldn't be the answer to the state's overcrowding problem.

"Those people in the county jails usually don't qualify to be put in the regional jail because of the type of crimes they have committed," Wardlaw said. "This is a lot more than just moving 500 inmates around.

"This will not fix overcrowding problems because most of the crimes are violent crimes and ones that can't be housed at this facility."

McCormick said LaSalle Corrections still has a plan with Bradley and Drew counties, but that is all that it is.

"It is just a plan at this point," he said. "This is a project that we would like to still develop."

The facility was expected to be located in Warren, but McCormick said that is no longer the case.

"We haven't chosen an alternate site yet, but we are in the process of looking at alternate sites," he said. "So many issues come up with facilities in the design and development stage. Due to various reasons, the one in Warren didn't work out.

"We still have an agreement with the county judges."

An agreement was reached between LaSalle and the two counties in 2019. Details of the contract were not available, and multiple attempts to contact County Judge Klay McKinney of Bradley County and County Judge Robert Akin of Drew County had not been returned as of Friday afternoon.

McCormick said the estimated bed count in the facility would be similar to the originally proposed 500 beds, but a few things could change.

"We are looking forward to developing in the state of Arkansas," he said.