Prison prob­lems spell trou­ble for Hutchin­son, state

The Weekly Vista - - Opinion - MAYLON RICE

The re­cent spate of prob­lems within and at the Arkansas Depart­ment of Corrections may, at first blush, look like rou­tine in­car­na­tion news events.

But look closer Mr. and Mrs. Voter, it sig­nals many more prob­lems than the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to let on.

The prison sys­tem in Arkansas, once called the Prison Farm Sys­tem, has al­ways been a pow­der keg that’s just a spark or two away from ex­plod­ing. We hear that things are bet­ter than the “dark days,” of the Tucker Tele­phone, the use of the strap and all those walk-away es­capes in the 1970s and 1980s from the prison sys­tem.

But we still need to ask this ques­tion: Are things re­ally bet­ter with our state’s sys­tem of putting the con­victed crim­i­nals be­hind bars?

To­day, there is still prison over­crowd­ing. Maybe not as much as when the Hutchin­son ad­min­is­tra­tion took con­trol, but re­mem­ber our gov­er­nor quickly — with the bless­ing of the leg­is­la­ture — shipped out sev­eral hun­dred prison in­mates to a re­gional jail/lockup/ prison run by a cor­po­rate en­tity in east Texas.

That move gave a lit­tle breath­ing room of over­crowd­ing in the early days of the Hutchin­son ad­min­is­tra­tion. At the time of the move there was a lit­tle carp­ing about the dis­tance for the fam­i­lies of those in­car­cer­ated and some more com­plaints about the cost, but most of the in­mates sin­gled out for the trans­fer from a state-run prison to a cor­per­ate-run fa­cil­ity were about to be el­i­gi­ble for pa­role or re­lease for the com­ple­tion of the court-or­dered sen­tence.

So it was quickly and qui­etly hailed as a “Win, Win,” for ev­ery­one.

And we have heard lit­tle about the num­ber of pris­on­ers we have not shipped off to East Texas in a cor­po­rate run fa­cil­ity. Maybe it is time we asked for those fig­ures and those statis­tics in light of the cur­rent episodes of trou­ble at the Tucker Unit of late.

As re­cent ex­am­ples: In two sep­a­rate in­stances, in­mates of the Tucker Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity Units were able to es­cape from the one-man re­cre­ation pens and in­jure other in­mates and guards. This is said to be the most se­cure of all the prison units.

An­other ex­am­ple: When pris­on­ers who held hostages in a stand­off were loaded onto a bus to be taken to an­other fa­cil­ity, jail keys were found on the in­mates.

And then there is the story in the state press about the fenc­ing in­side the Tucker Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity area. The fence was known to have prob­lems in do­ing what the wire fenc­ing was in­stalled to do — keep the in­mates sep­a­rate from the other in­mates and the guards.

Quickly, but only when pressed by the press, did the gov­er­nor back his di­rec­tor of pris­ons. He did, how­ever, ask for full in­ves­ti­ga­tions (two are cur­rently on-go­ing) into these in­stances. And Hutchin­son, in his get-tough style, said there may need to be some per­son­nel is­sues ad­dressed and dis­ci­pline meted out.

There are more peo­ple be­hind bars in Arkansas than ever be­fore:

• Arkansas’ prison pop­u­la­tion has grown by 700 per­cent in 40 years.

• In 1975, there were 2,352 peo­ple in­car­cer­ated in state pris­ons. On July 10, 2016, (the lat­est fig­ures avail­able) there were 18,843 un­der ADC ju­ris­dic­tion (that num­ber in­cluded 2,677 who were housed in county jails be­cause the ADC did not have room for them in its fa­cil­i­ties).

• By 2025, ac­cord­ing to pro­jec­tions, there will be more than 25,000 in­car­cer­ated in Arkansas pris­ons.

Aside from the over­whelm­ing num­ber of men and women who are sen­tenced to be in prison, there is the cost. In 2014, it cost an av­er­age of $23,000 to in­car­cer­ate some­one, just about as much as one

year’s cost to at­tend the Univer­sity of Arkansas, with­out any schol­ar­ship help.

Our state’s prison sys­tem is ex­pand­ing faster than nearly all other states in the na­tion. And so the prob­lems are ex­pand­ing within the prison sys­tem, too. Per­haps the most alarm­ing statis­tic is that 12 to 15 per­cent of the jobs needed to cover the ba­sic jobs of guard­ing the in­mates — an en­try-level po­si­tion — are un­filled.

It is time for an­swers to the ques­tions about pris­ons in our state.

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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