Expensive stopgap measure won’t help prison system
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 email@example.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.