Re­gional jail idea floated in five coun­ties

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - JOHN MORITZ

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.”

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