Prison problems spell trouble for Hutchinson, state
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are those of the author.