Expansion projects paused as Arkansas decides how to increase prison capacity
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders wants to increase Arkansas’ prison capacity by 3,000 beds. State leaders are still determining how to add the new space. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
While Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has made expanding the state’s prison capacity a priority, three projects started under the previous administration are on hold for now.
The early stages of those efforts — an expansion of a prison in North Arkansas and the new construction of a 1,000-bed prison and a separate 300-bed community corrections facility — began last year.
But now, it’s unclear how and if those projects will fit into Sanders’ broader criminal justice system overhaul.
“Public safety” has been Sanders’ second highest priority — behind education — since taking office in January. She has called for setting aside $470 million to build more prison space and threw her support behind the newly passed PROTECT Act, which restructured Arkansas’ sentencing and parole laws.
The Arkansas Department of Corrections doesn’t know how all of this will affect the projects started last year, according to agency spokesperson Dina Tyler, but several local officials around the state who have offered to donate land to bring the projects to their communities eagerly await a decision.
“All we know for sure is that we will be building 3,000 beds,” Tyler said. “Where they will be located is undecided at this point. Governor Sanders has said that all options are on the table.”
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Prison officials have long known that Arkansas needs more space for inmates, and the state’s prisoner backlog has overflowed into county jails for years.
Last year, then-Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves said projections showed that Arkansas would need 2,200 new prison beds over the next decade if current inmate population growth trends continued. Prison officials and lawmakers this year said the state may need even more beds in the coming years.
Passage of the PROTECT Act, which will require most felons to spend more time in prison, expedites the need for more prison space.
Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed expanding the Corrections Department’s North Central Unit in Calico Rock by almost 500 beds using surplus funds, and state lawmakers approved $75 million in reserve funds for the project in December.
At the time, the next steps were said to include finalizing a design and hiring a contractor to complete the project.
The Calico Rock prison’s expansion doesn’t appear as certain now, though Tyler said it was one of the options being considered to meet Sanders’ goal of adding 3,000 new beds.
The Corrections Department in November also took the first steps toward building two new facilities: a 300-bed community corrections center and a new, 1,000-bed prison.
In separate public notices, the agency asked for responses from communities interested in donating land for either project.
The agency received two land donation offers of more than 400 acres each in Hempstead County for a new prison.
The Corrections Department asked for sites at least 60 miles from the nearest prison and 400 acres or more.
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The agency also received land offers for the community corrections center in Hempstead, Dallas, Nevada and Searcy counties. The facility would be the newest of eight minimum-security residential facilities for offenders preparing to reenter society or who have violated the terms of their parole or probation.
Corrections officials hoped for a property between five and 40 acres near an emergency hospital and population center with an adequate workforce.
The renovation of a former juvenile detention facility in Batesville into a community corrections facility remains on track, Tyler said. A groundbreaking for the $13.3 million project is scheduled for Tuesday. Officials expect the completed facility to hold 162 parole violators.
Arkansas’ new Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri and agency leaders have also found space to add 457 temporary beds in existing prisons and community correction centers and to expand the Mississippi County Work Release Center by 100 beds, Tyler said.
As state leaders determine how to add more prison space, Tyler said, the land donation packages will “be considered in the decision-making process.”
A handful of small Arkansas communities hope state officials take them up on their offers to donate land for new correctional facilities.
Steve Harris, president of Hempstead County Economic Development, said either a new prison or community corrections center would be a “game changer” for the surrounding communities.
Officials in Hempstead have offered the state several potential properties for a correctional facility.
The jobs and money the facilities could bring to Hempstead and surrounding areas would be a boon, according to Harris.
“It would be all-new money into our local economy,” he said. “Any new prison, whether large or small, the payroll and construction jobs will be all additional to our local economies, and it would be a long-term investment by the state into our area. It’s all positive.”
He also noted that prison jobs are stable and recession-proof, unlike the region’s manufacturing sector.
Hempstead’s two submissions for the larger facility were for a 1,000-bed operation, but Harris said he didn’t see any problems if that project grew to 3,000 beds.
About 80 miles west, Fordyce also offered the state land for a new community corrections center.
Mayor John MacNichol said he started preparing the proposal as soon as he saw the public notice in the newspaper.
The facility would be safe and located next to the Dallas County jail, MacNichol said when asked if any residents had expressed public safety concerns.
“We were looking at the employment and the impact it would have for the city,” he said.
Searcy County and Nevada County officials also offered tracts of land for the community corrections center.
Local officials like MacNichol and Harris must await the state’s decision on whether it will continue to pursue the land donations and whether their communities will be selected.
For now, they hope.
“If a new shoe store opens in town, it takes away from another shoe store,” Harris said. “This would be all-new money and new jobs. It’s a whole new sector. From an economic development perspective, it’s a bonanza really.”
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