Arkansas adds soli­tary cells; oth­ers re­v­erse flawed trend

The Weekly Vista - - Opinion - MAYLON RICE 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.

As the Arkansas Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion and ap­pointed Prison Board scram­ble to get out of the daily news cy­cle they are now ask­ing for more soli­tary cells to quell the trou­bles within the sys­tem.

As Arkansans, we, have tried the old lock-’em-up for­mula for decades. There are slight changes to the state’s prison and pa­role sys­tem said to be com­ing. But there seems to be no end to the rag­ing tide of in­creas­ing prison pop­u­la­tion in our state.

Arkansas, has one of the states among the na­tion’s high­est rate of in­car­cer­a­tion per 100,000 cit­i­zens – we are fast be­com­ing the No. 1 state with the most of its cit­i­zens per capita be­hind bars.

It is not an easy task — the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion houses al­most 16,000 peo­ple be­hind bars each day.

A re­cent rev­e­la­tion of a fail­ure to hire ad­e­quate prison guards and other cor­rec­tional em­ploy­ees un­veiled a shock­ing deficit in the num­ber of needed per­son­nel to run the pris­ons. One has to won­der if more and more re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for jobs and tasks within the depart­ment have been re­turned to that old and tragic man­age­ment pol­icy of the past – the in­mate trustee sys­tem.

In a trustee sys­tem, con­victed prison in­mates run the pris­ons. The fed­eral courts once proved that Arkansas’ pris­ons were in­deed op­er­at­ing a dark and dan­ger­ous place for those con­victed and sen­tenced to prison by ju­rors and the court sys­tem.

This week, Rick Raemisch, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Colorado Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion, has spo­ken out against the sys­tem­atic pun­ish­ment of adding more soli­tary cells to a prison sys­tem in an ef­fort to make the sys­tem op­er­ate more ef­fi­ciently and safely.

In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Raemisch wrote in an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled: “Putting an end to longterm soli­tary.”

He, like the folks in the Arkansas prison sys­tem, for years had a ready an­swer for in­mates he wanted to pun­ish – send that pris­oner off to a cell the size of a park­ing space. This is called ad­min­is­tra­tive seg­re­ga­tion.

En­hanc­ing this pro­gram is what Arkansas’ prison ad­min­is­tra­tion and the state Board of Pris­ons are head­ing into – at break­neck speed. The prison’s ad­min­is­tra­tion and board are call­ing for more wire to build more pens for th­ese in­mates. They also want more and more re­sources to be used to seg­re­gate th­ese trou­bled in­mates from the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

Pretty soon ev­ery­one will have their own in­di­vid­ual cell. This seems to be the cor­rec­tive mind­set to get the prison sys­tem out of the news, the Prison Board back down to pol­icy mat­ters — so the gover­nor of Arkansas can breathe eas­ier in his of­fice far, far away from the trou­ble and trou­ble­mak­ers be­hind bars.

Raemisch writes that long-term iso­la­tion in­car­cer­a­tion leads to and ag­gra­vates men­tal ill­ness. Un­der his watch, Colorado pris­ons have al­most elim­i­nated this puni­tive prac­tice.

We know the Arkansas prison sys­tem, and even our lo­cal jails, are filled with peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing from some form of men­tal ill­ness. Many more are locked up for be­ing men­tally ill than for com­mit­ting a tra­di­tional crime.

An ex­pen­sive fix the Arkansas Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion de­sires is adding more means to place in­mates in soli­tary cells.

A less-ex­pen­sive and long-term fix would be to fi­nally ac­cept the premise that pro­vid­ing more and bet­ter men­tal health care within our state’s prison sys­tem would lead to a safer place for the guards, ad­min­is­tra­tion and yes, even the other in­mates.

No jury has the di­rect in­ten­tion to sen­tence a man or wo­man to a soli­tary six­foot by nine-foot cell, and in do­ing so ag­gra­vat­ing a lin­ger­ing or hid­den men­tal ill­ness into the harm­ing of oth­ers – even those within the state’s care – in our prison sys­tem.

But we have to shed the lock-’em-up men­tal­ity.

It is sim­ply not work­ing and over­bur­den­ing our state’s re­sources un­like any other state ser­vice paid for by the tax­pay­ers.

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