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.”

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.”

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