Prison officials propose state jail
Arkansas prison officials are proposing to build a new 1,000 bed unit with plenty of secure, isolated cells for repeat offenders and inmates who continuously cause trouble.
The projected cost is between $75 million and $100 million. Under the state constitution the legislature has ultimate authority to determine spending by state agencies, and will consider the proposal during the 2015 regular session.
The session convenes in January, but in October legislators will began a detailed review of all spending requests in preparation for writing an overall state budget next year.
The Correction Department operates state prison units, and the Board of Correction oversees the department. The Board recently voted to seek funding for the new unit, with an estimated operating budget of $19 million a year. A maximum security unit for inmates who consistently cause management problems would be more expensive because it would have more individual cells than prison units with barracks style housing.
One possible source of funding, if approved by lawmakers, would be an increase in license plate fees. Revenue could finance a bond issue.
The Board anticipates that cities and towns will bid to become the site of the new prison, because it will create about 230 jobs. The unit will take up about 400 acres.
The Arkansas inmate population is more than 17,000 and growing. One reason for a recent growth spurt is that prison officials tightened parole policies. Now, inmates who are out of prison on parole must comply with stricter rules about reporting to parole officers and attending court-ordered drug treatment and counseling.
Due to the tighter policies imposed in the past 12 months there has been a spike in the number of parolees who have been sent back to prison.
Another reason for prison overcrowding is that more than 5,000 inmates, or about a third of the Arkansas inmate population, are serving life sentences without parole or sentences that are so long they will never be released. This is a sizeable bloc of inmates that will never be released to make room for new ones, according to the director of the Correction Department.
Prison overcrowding is an issue that legislators and the Correction Department have had to cope with for years. Most recently, in a special session earlier this year the legislature approved spending an additional $6.3 million a year to open 60 more prison beds.
More than 4,000 people are employed by state prisons, which include more than 20 prison units, administrative facilities and work release centers.
Arkansas recently hosted the annual meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference, which was attended by legislators and policy makers from 15 southern state and border states. During a study session on prisons it was reported that there are more than 577,000 inmates incarcerated in the southern states, compared to about 325,000 in 1993.
Arkansas was one of the states whose inmate population has grown in recent years. Several states have seen a decline in their prison population because they are implementing drug treatment programs and reducing the amount of a sentence that inmates must serve in order to become eligible for parole.