PARAGOULD -- The Arkansas Board of Corrections on Thursday authorized the Department of Corrections to begin the site selection process for construction of a new prison facility, and suggested it might be time to look into finding prisons the state can contract with to address overcrowding.
The Board of Corrections creating three committees that will conduct studies into various topics surrounding prison expansion. The move came after Department of Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves told board members the expansion at the North Central Unit and the proposed new 1,000-bed prison facility wouldn't address future needs.
"This doesn't address long term if there are no changes to our population growth," Graves said.
Graves said recent projects show if the inmate population continues to grow by 1.3% annually, the correction system will need an increase of 2,200 beds by 2032.
"This means we would need 19,776 beds, which is an increase of 2,200 beds from our current 17,506," he said. "That means we would need another 1,000 beds, and this includes the North Central Expansion and the additional facility."
Board Chairman Benny Magness made the motion to create three committees: one that would explore opening a new supervision sanction center, another that would look into contract bed space to address capacity in the short term, and a third that would study site selection and design for a new 1,000-bed facility.
Graves told the board he wants the site selection process for the 1,000-bed prison facility to run for 90 days to allow local elections to play out before a location is chosen.
"There may be changes to mayors, quorum courts and others, and we want to make sure that the community support when we open it up this month remains in January and February," he said. "It avoids a position where the quorum court in December approves, but when a new quorum court comes in there is no longer that support."
A document obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week shows the Department of Corrections will solicit expressions of interest from communities related to the donation of land.
"The land would be used for construction of a maximum-security facility housing approximately 1,000 inmates within the Division of Correction," the document states.
The document says the desired location would be 100 acres, not prone to flooding, in close proximity to a hospital and adequate utilities, not within 60 miles of an existing correctional facility and located in a sufficient population center for staff recruitment and retention.
Magness said officials should look for two places when considering possible sites to allow for a second new prison to built as soon as possible. He said he had recently heard rumors that legislators want to see three new prison facilities but said he doesn't believe that is possible.
"That doesn't face reality," he said. "But I do want a committee set up in a way that when we find a site after these 90 days that the one that was second can be set up as a place we can get started on as soon as possible."
Jail expansion has come up repeatedly over the past year, with several legislators calling on the General Assembly to use some of its recent $1.6 billion surplus to build another facility.
A group of sheriffs from around the state told lawmakers during a legislative session in March that overcrowding had reached a crisis point within their jails. They cited the rising number of state prisoners being housed in county facilities, which has led to a rise violence and gangs becoming commonplace within those facilities. The group also spoke about the need for higher reimbursement rates for county jails that hold state prisoners.
Citing a 10-year projection of inmate population growth, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said earlier this year he wanted to use surplus general revenue to expand the North Central Unit in Calico Rock by about 498 beds. Hutchinson said the proposed prison expansion wasn't a shift in criminal justice policy, but a way to address the state's growing prison population.
The General Assembly approved a Division of Correction appropriation for the 2023 fiscal year that included $75 million in spending authority for expansion of the North Central Unit.
Graves said a request for a quote is out for a design professional for the North Central Unit project. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said previously that the estimated completion date for phase 1 of the expansion is sometime in 2025.
The department is opening a seventh community correction center next year in Batesville. It will hold approximately 700 offenders annually who would have been housed in county jails for 90-day terms. Estimated cost is $9 million. Murphy said $4.3 million will be spent in the current fiscal year with the balance being spent in fiscal 2024.
The same day the Board of Corrections gave approval to move forward with the site selection process, it also approved using the state's 90-day Emergency Powers Act to certify a list of 83 females as being eligible for immediate release if approved by the parole board. The board also used a one-year Emergency Powers Act to approve an additional list of 81 male and 42 female inmates for immediate release because of overcrowding.
CONTRACTS FOR BED SPACE
Magness cited such figures as the reason why the Department of Corrections must look again at contracting bed space to address capacity.
"Because of North Central not being started yet and a new facility not being started yet, I want that third committee to study contracts for bed space somewhere," he said. "We may have to do what we are doing now for several more years."
Magness said there are currently a little more than 2,000 state inmates in county jails, and that number is projected to reach a minimum of 3,000 at minimum before anything can be built.
"We have gone through these contracting situations before and it's not pretty, but I do believe we need a third committee for contracts of beds," he said.
Magness suggested looking at local sheriffs' offices before turning to contract prisons in other states.
"This is something that we are going to have to look at as a possible solution for bed space in the interim," he said. "This is not long term like we were looking at when it was the 10 years in Bradley County. This might be something like two years."
Magness said it's time to address overcrowding in a way that goes beyond just patching the problem, which might mean searching for contracts for bed space.
"I think the sheriffs departments, or a lot of them, are putting so much pressure on us and the legislators that we are going to have to look at it," he said.
Graves took a moment to point out the goal of the prison system.
"We do not want to be in a position to continue to have this conversation," he said. "We are in the correction business, but as a state we got to do more than just keep building prisons."
Graves told the high school students who were in attendance that the priority for the Department of Corrections is not incarceration but rehabilitation.
"When this administration started we were seeing a 3% growth per year, and now it's down to 1.3 percent. That is progress," he said. "We are a growing state, so all parts of our population will grow, including the corrections population. But we are and will remain committed at a staff level implementing intervention for growth long term."
Graves said by building new facilities they can address some of the needs within the prison system beyond simply bed space.
"We can lay out this facility to reduce staffing needs or lay out a facility to implement things like technology," he said. "We can't do that at locations that date back to the Hoover administration."
Graves said he also understands things such as prison expansion and prison contracts will bring discomfort.
"This is not where I want to be long term," he said. "As a simple part of being a growing state, that is where we are."