Prison farms feed thou­sands of state in­mates

The Times (Northeast Benton County) - - OPINION - Edi­tor’s note: Arkansas Se­na­tor Ce­cile Bled­soe rep­re­sents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bled­soe is chair of the Pub­lic Health, Wel­fare and La­bor Com­mit­tee. CE­CILE BLED­SOE Arkansas Se­na­tor

LIT­TLE ROCK — The Arkansas Cor­rec­tion Depart­ment houses 18,180 in­mates. If it were a city, it would be the 24th largest in Arkansas, but the sys­tem is spread across the state in 19 prison units and sev­eral other se­cure fa­cil­i­ties.

About 1,450 will be in the jails of the 75 coun­ties in Arkansas, wait­ing un­til space is avail­able in a prison unit. Arkansas has con­tracted with Texas to house 333 in­mates in Bowie County, across the state line from Texarkana.

About 250 in­mates are in county jails un­der the 309 pro­gram. It’s named for Act 309 of 1983, which authorizes state in­mates to work cler­i­cal and main­te­nance jobs for coun­ties. Another 61 in­mates work at State Po­lice head­quar­ters through­out the state.

A large com­po­nent of the prison pop­u­la­tion, 3,477 in­mates, is as­signed to the Agri­cul­ture Divi­sion of the state Cor­rec­tion Depart­ment. That is a mod­ern, bu­reau­cratic name for prison farms.

Like those in sev­eral other south­ern states, the old­est ex­ist­ing prison units in Arkansas be­gan as farms. The state pur­chased 10,000 acres for the Cum­mins unit in 1902. In­mates had been housed on a 15-acre site in Lit­tle Rock. The first death cham­ber was built at Cum­mins and in 1913 the first in­mate was ex­e­cuted there. He was a 21-year-old from Prairie County con­victed of rape.

In 1916 the state bought 4,400 acres for the Tucker prison farm. In 1933 the prison in Lit­tle Rock, known as “The Walls,” was closed and all in­mates were trans­ferred to the Cum­mins unit or the Tucker unit.

For the past 100 years the Cor­rec­tion Depart­ment has been ac­cu­mu­lat­ing farm prop­erty and now has more than 20,000 acres in pro­duc­tion. Of those, 14,000 acres are for row crops and 5,200 are pas­ture for live­stock. The pris­ons have 30 acres of or­chard and 650 acres of veg­etable gar­den.

Arkansas prison farms own 2,400 swine and 462 dairy cows. In an av­er­age month, 150 hogs are slaugh­tered for in­mate con­sump­tion. Milk pro­duc­tion av­er­ages 500 to 800 gal­lons a day.

The depart­ment hires pri­vate con­trac­tors for crop dust­ing and it leases heavy equip­ment like com­bines.

A leg­isla­tive au­dit de­ter­mined that yields in 2015 for wheat, soy­beans, corn and sorghum were be­low av­er­age yields in the pri­vate sec­tor. How­ever, the yield for rice was higher. Cor­rec­tion of­fi­cials at­trib­uted the lower than av­er­age pro­duc­tion lev­els to the lack of wells.

On pri­vately-owned farms there is usu­ally a well for ir­ri­gat­ing ev­ery 80 to 100 acres, the of­fi­cial told leg­isla­tive au­di­tors. How­ever, at Cum­mins there is a well for ev­ery 190 acres and at Tucker for ev­ery 140 acres. The East Arkansas unit near Brick­eys, in Lee County, has row crops and it too has a well ev­ery 140 acres.

Leg­is­la­tors pay close at­ten­tion to the Cor­rec­tion Depart­ment’s op­er­a­tions be­cause they ac­count for about $350 mil­lion a year in state gen­eral rev­enue. The depart­ment has about 4,500 em­ploy­ees, with 64 be­ing paid from farm in­come to work with in­mates as­signed to prison farms.

The prison farms are a $20 mil­lion op­er­a­tion. In 2015, the year of the leg­isla­tive au­dit, in­mates con­sumed $8.7 mil­lion of food from prison farms. The farms sold $9.5 mil­lion in prod­ucts.

Ac­cord­ing to au­di­tors, the agri­cul­ture divi­sion would have generated $1.8 mil­lion in in­come that year above ex­penses. How­ever, it trans­ferred cap­i­tal as­sets to other di­vi­sions within the Cor­rec­tion Depart­ment.

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