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.”
In order to hold state inmates, counties and private contractors must meet certain standards, including health care access and dietary rules that are set by the Department of Correction.
Jail inspection records show that several of the counties involved in the project have struggled with deficiencies for years.
At the Cleveland County jail, Rodgers said he installed a small fenced-in section atop the asphalt behind his jail in 2015, after inspectors recommended providing a recreational area for inmates.
Currently, he’s hoping to relocate the office of his jail administrator. That office doubles as a visitation area where friends and family members talk with inmates through two metal portholes behind the desk.
“Each time the standards come out, they add something else,” he said.
The most recent inspection report noted Rodgers and his staff “are doing an excellent job to [the] extent possible within the confines of the existing site.”
Because of limited space, his jail and one in Lincoln County, do not hold women or youthful offenders.
There is no jail in Bradley County, where Wardlaw lives.
“What you’re having happen is prisoners walking free because there’s no jails, and prisoners that ought to be locked up” are going free, said Wardlaw. “That’s what drew the interest” to the idea of a regional jail.
For the state, a regional jail offers a chance to relieve, at least a bit, its chronic crowding at state prisons.
The swollen state prison population has led to a backup of prisoners in county jails that has grown to more than 1,000 inmates. Corrections officials’ repeated calls for funding to build another state prison have gone largely unanswered by lawmakers.
Since the early 2000s, when two private prisons in Arkansas were investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, and ultimately placed back under state control, state prison officials, including Magness, have been leery of prison privatization.
With the exception of the Bowie County lockup in Texas, no state inmates are housed in private jails. The federal Bureau of Prisons announced plans last year to phase out private prisons, though that has been reversed under President Donald Trump.
The regional lockup “would be the same thing [as housing inmates in Bowie County.] We’re already doing it,” Magness said. “Do I have concerns about private prisons? I always have concerns.”
Chatter about building a regional jail in the state has swirled since a 2015 law was passed allowing counties to contract with the state for up to 20 years to house prisoners.
Newton County Sheriff Keith Slape, a former president of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, said several counties in his area of north-central Arkansas were interested in building a regional jail after that law, Act 1206, passed. Those efforts fell through when the counties decided to build new jails, he said.
“It’s not a new idea. It’s floated around for a long time, and there were not the parties in place to do it,” said Kelly Eichler, the top aide on criminal justice issues for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who she said supports the idea.
Quorum courts in Drew and Bradley counties have passed resolutions to each join a commission to help move the project forward.
The commission cannot get to work unless at least one more county — Chicot, Lincoln and Cleveland — sign on to the project
Lincoln County Judge Harry Densmore said after Thursday’s meeting he was opting to have a tax issue placed before voters that would pay for a new county jail.
In Cleveland County, County Judge Gary Spears said he will ask his Quorum Court to sign a resolution to join the commission, but he and Rodgers, the sheriff, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette later Thursday they have lingering concerns.
Chief among them: What happens if a county participating in the regional jail tries to renege on the deal, take its inmates back to local lockups or send them off to other, cheaper lockups?
“They’re [the private contractors] going to be asking for a 20-year contract, and I don’t feel like I can obligate 20 years because I’m only elected every two years,” Rodgers said.
“The good thing is, I wouldn’t have the headache of a jail.”