Ex­pen­sive stop­gap mea­sure won’t help prison sys­tem

Siloam Springs Herald Leader - - OPINION - MAYLON RICE

Board mem­bers of Arkansas’ chron­i­cally un­der­staffed and ag­ing prison sys­tem in­fra­struc­ture, this past week asked for its man­age­ment to re­quest $6 mil­lion in fund­ing from any­where it can be found.

Most of the fund­ing is a short­term an­swer to a long-term prob­lem — pay­ing the staff to run the prison.

De­part­ment of Corrections Di­rec­tor Wendy Kelly and her staff have had a ter­ri­ble time fill­ing all the open po­si­tions within the state prison sys­tem.

Pay is low, hours are long and the la­bor pool found in coun­ties near the Arkansas prison sys­tem fa­cil­i­ties is among the high­est un­em­ploy­ment rates in the state — but still no one, it seems, wants to work for the state prison sys­tem.

And the rea­sons for “no-hires” for these jobs are nu­mer­ous.

The ba­sic “guard” or “corrections of­fi­cer” makes a base pay just barely over min­i­mum wage.

And not so many years ago, it was ru­mored a full-time corrections of­fi­cer, if mar­ried and with one child in the mar­riage, would au­to­mat­i­cally qual­ify for food stamps (now known as SSI).

There is ba­sic health in­sur­ance avail­able, if the cost-share to the em­ployee can be sus­tained on the low pay of­fered a start­ing corrections of­fi­cer with no ex­pe­ri­ence. Adding a spouse and chil­dren, is, within rea­son, cost pro­hib­i­tive for an en­try level corrections of­fi­cer on a start­ing correction of­fi­cer’s pay.

The build­ings these corrections of­fi­cers work in are old. Some of these struc­tures are de­cay­ing.

All the state’s prison fa­cil­i­ties are crowded to be­ing over­crowded with more in­mates than na­tional prison stan­dards al­low.

So there is all that just be­fore one gets to the “safety” fac­tor of work­ing, in and around a gen­eral prison pop­u­la­tion of al­most 16,000 in­mates. Now not all in­mates are at the same fa­cil­ity.

But when a prison fa­cil­ity, within the state’s sys­tem, is over­crowded by 50 to 100 in­mates or more than its orig­i­nal de­sign, then safety be­comes an is­sue.

This past sum­mer sev­eral times, prison of­fi­cials went into a “lock-down” mode to quell un­rest from within the in­mate pop­u­la­tion.

The state Prison Board, a group of gover­nor ap­pointees, met this week and asked for the con­struc­tion of for­ti­fied walls in the recre­ation area of four of the state’s pris­ons — most of these ar­eas house the most vi­o­lent of state in­mates.

That re­quest, in it­self is, alarm­ing.

Pay is low, hours are long and the la­bor pool found in coun­ties near the Arkansas prison sys­tem fa­cil­i­ties is among the high­est un­em­ploy­ment rates in the state — but still no one, it seems, wants to work for the state prison sys­tem. And the rea­sons for “no-hires” for these jobs are nu­mer­ous.

If the cur­rent sys­tem of chain­link fenc­ing used to sep­a­rate these in­mates is ag­ing and not work­ing to keep sep­a­ra­tion of the in­mates, how does the prison board think a bar­rier of con­crete will be bet­ter?

The chain-link fenc­ing bar­ri­ers are used so a smaller num­ber of corrections of­fi­cers (guards, if you will) can see a wider pop­u­la­tion out­side the cells for ex­er­cise times. Yes, there were breaches to the chain-link fenc­ing or “cages” this sum­mer which led to some vi­o­lent at­tacks, but how will con­crete walls elim­i­nate fu­ture at­tacks.

If there is a way to breach these con­crete walls, won’t the at­tacks and pos­si­ble hostage sit­u­a­tions be even more se­vere with no vis­ual line of sight into the yards? And the state ap­pointed prison board wants the De­part­ment of Corrections to go to the Arkansas De­vel­op­ment and Fi­nance Au­thor­ity to take out a bond to pay for the project – with the prison sys­tem re­paid through the Prison Con­struc­tion Trust Fund.

In other words, bor­row the money for fixes to­day against the long-term con­struc­tion needs of the pris­ons of to­mor­row.

The Prison Con­struc­tion Trust Fund has about $6.5 mil­lion on hand.

The Board only wants to bor­row the lion’s share of that ac­count — leav­ing a half mil­lion balance.

The Prison Con­struc­tion Trust Fund is fi­nanced through the sale of an­nual li­cense plate van­ity de­cals.

Who knew where this $6.5 mil­lion pot of money came from?

Not many peo­ple would be my guess.

But we all can now know that some state ap­pointed boards want $6 mil­lion of it spent on over­time pay for of­fi­cers and new walls.

It is a bad, bad short-term deal.

— Maylon Rice is a for­mer jour­nal­ist who worked for sev­eral north­west Arkansas pub­li­ca­tions. He can be reached via email at may­lon­trice@ya­hoo.com. The opin­ions ex­pressed are those of the au­thor.

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