Prison farms feed thousands of state inmates
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.