Regional jail idea floated in five counties
When sheriff’s deputies in Cleveland County take a drunk to jail, there’s a single, peach-colored holding cell behind the century-old county courthouse where they can keep him to sober up.
If that cell is full, Sheriff Jack Rodgers says his only options are release, or paying to have the inebriated person sent outside his rural county to jail elsewhere that will hold him for a few hours.
Such limitations on jail space are why Rodgers, along with officials in several other counties in the southeast Arkansas timberlands, say they’re interested in building a new kind of regional jail — operated by a private company and filled with mostly state prisoners.
The envisioned 600-bed facility would house mostly state Department of Correction inmates, officials said last week, with a certain number of beds reserved for each of the participating counties.
But the officials stressed the preliminary nature of their talks, noting the lack of any official agreement among the counties, state or any private contractor.
County judges and sheriffs from five counties — Drew, Bradley, Lincoln, Chicot and Cleveland — as well as local lawmakers, met privately in Monticello on Thursday to decide “who’s in, who’s out,” said Drew County Judge Robert Akin.
Still, the meeting ended without a firm commitment to form a group to negotiate a contract. So far, two of the five counties want to move forward with the idea, but they need a third.
Despite the lack of a formal commitment, other aspects of the project are moving ahead. County officials, including Akin, and state Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, said they visited a private facility in Louisiana operated by LaSalle Corrections, which is headquartered in that state.
LaSalle also operates the Bowie County lockup in Texarkana, Texas, which houses more than 300 Arkansas prisoners under a contract with the state.
Wardlaw said after Thursday’s meeting several other private corporations have reached out, expressing interest in running a regional jail.
Benny Magness, the chairman of the Arkansas Board of Corrections, said the state has offered to provide up to 500 inmates for such a facility. Where those inmates would be transferred from has yet to be decided, Magness said, but they would not include maximum-security prisoners.
Under a contract with a regional jail, Arkansas would pay for the daily costs of housing state inmates, as would the counties that contract with the lockup. Who pays for the construction would depend on the contract the counties and the private contractor reach.
Akin said it would be necessary to include state inmates in the project to get the prisoner count high enough to attract private jail operators and their bargain prices. While counties need some jail space, their prisoner count would not be high enough to negotiate the best deals, he said.
Drew County, which has a 43-bed jail, spends about $60 a day to incarcerate each inmate, Akin said. With private operators, he hopes to cut that cost in half.
“Dollars and cents, that’s what it comes down to,” Akin said. “With 600 [inmates], their buying power becomes like Wal-Mart.”