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Arkansas’ prison board and state leaders, despite an ongoing public dispute, agree on one thing: the state needs a new prison; but progress on that project has inched along.
Nearly a year after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced plans in March to set aside $470 million for a new 3,000-bed prison, the project remains in the most preliminary stages.
“We are in the process of identifying property that is the most suitable for building a 3,000 bed facility, taking into consideration such things as labor force, infrastructure, and access to emergency services and highways. It doesn’t do us much good if we can’t staff the prison or get to it,” said Dina Tyler, communications director at the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
As for the actual build, Tyler said department officials have been working to identify a “building program” that would meet the agency’s needs, stay under budget and provide the number of beds needed.
“That’s a tall order considering the size and scope of the project,” she said. “Next steps are narrowing down the location and identifying procurement methods and financing options.”
The Sanders administration abandoned, or at least paused, three corrections expansion projects started under former Gov. Asa Hutchinson with support from the General Assembly — a 500-bed expansion at the prison in Calico Rock, a new 1,000 bed prison and a new 500-bed community correction facility — to make way for the 3,000-bed facility.
“The Governor made it a top priority to work with our partners in the legislature and pass legislation that supports our law enforcement and cracks down on violent repeat offenders,” Sanders’ Communications Director Alexa Henning said. “Although the Board of Corrections continues to play political games in an attempt to slow progress down, the Governor is doing everything in her power to protect the people of Arkansas.”
Despite agreement on the need for a new prison facility, the public spat between Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin with the Board of Corrections has raged on in the courtroom and through public letters and statements.
At its core, the disagreement is over two questions: How can Arkansas safely expand its prison capacity? And, who gets to make those final calls?
The latter will be answered by the Arkansas Supreme Court once Griffin appeals the recent lower court decision that sided with the board.
That case touches on the reach of Amendment 33 to the Arkansas Constitution, which contemplates the independence of the Board of Corrections as well as Arkansas’ colleges and universities.
Spokespeople for both the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University systems said Thursday they were monitoring the case but felt like the legal issues are presently focused on matters unique to the correctional system.
Roughly 18,500 inmates have been sentenced to the Department of Corrections, but the state prison system has a rated inmate capacity of just 15,022. Through temporary beds and other measures, the department has crammed nearly 1,500 additional inmates into state facilities, leaving about 1,600 state inmates backed up into county jails.
Meanwhile, some facilities have unfilled guard positions upwards of 40%.
A new prison would certainly go a long way toward addressing the capacity problem, but officials have estimated it could be several years before such a facility would be ready to open.
Sanders and her Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri, who has been fired by the board for now, proposed adding just over 600 temporary beds in the meantime. The board approved all but 124 beds at the Tucker Unit because it felt the facility near England lacked adequate staff to handle the influx of inmates.
This impasse has kicked off the ongoing back-and-forth, which continued Wednesday with a lengthy letter in which Corrections Board member Lee Watson took Sanders, Griffin and several state lawmakers to task over their “inaccurate” and “disingenuous” statements about the board and the prison problem.
He reiterated that the board felt the temporary beds at Tucker would be unsafe, and he said the board has done the best it can within the “budgetary constraints” placed on the prison system by the Legislature and executive branch.
Watson rejected Sanders’ repeated charge that the board was playing political games, noting that Amendment 33 was enacted to insulate certain state boards from politics.
He repeated the call for a meeting between the board and Sanders.
“Because the Board has unique and longstanding insight into the needs of corrections in Arkansas, [Chairman] Benny Magness and the Board have wanted to meet with you since you were elected, and we would still like to meet with you to discuss how we can best address the bed shortage and implement your goal of opening a new facility as soon as possible,” Watson wrote. “Even though we have our constitutional and policy disagreements, we are very much on the same team. We are not adversarial to you, and I would ask that we let the courts handle our legal business so we can focus on more productive topics.”
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from the Arkansas Advocate. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.