• Arkansas Democrat Gazette, John Moritz

State lawmakers OK pact for private lockup; final vote set

A private prison company's plans to build a first-of-its-kind jail in southeast Arkansas received its next-to-final clearance Tuesday from state lawmakers, who approved the project without asking any questions.

The full Legislative Council must sign off on the deal Friday.

The project was all but assured approval last month when officials in Drew and Bradley counties signed on to their end of the deal with Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections. The contract between the two counties and LaSalle calls for the construction of a "regional jail" that will house around 500 state inmates.

LaSalle Executive Director Rodney Cooper said in a statement Tuesday that the company has scouted five potential locations for the jail within the two counties. Construction is expected to start early next year and will likely take between a year and 18 months, he said.

Under the terms of LaSalle's agreement with the counties, the company will pay the entire cost of the jail's construction, estimated to be between $15 million and $18 million.

All that was left Tuesday was for lawmakers to review the state's end of a separate contract, an $8.1 million-a-year deal to house inmates with the counties.

A subcommittee of the Legislative Council did so Tuesday afternoon without any debate or questions from the lawmakers in attendance. The intergovernmental agreement is projected to total more than $163 million over its 20-year span.

That price -- around $44 per inmate per day -- is about three-quarters what it would cost the state to house inmates at state Department of Corrections facilities.

Drew and Bradley counties, which will each have space to house their own local prisoners at the jail, agreed to pay $32.44 per inmate per day, also a savings over their current costs. (Bradley County, which does not have a jail, pays to send its prisoners to nearby counties.)

The discount-rate proposal, however, has also drawn concerns from advocates for inmates.

LaSalle settled two lawsuits in the past five years with family members of inmates who died at the company's Bi-State Jail in Texarkana, Texas. After two more deaths earlier this year, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards reported that the Bi-State Jail was out of compliance with standards on cell checks.

Arkansas currently houses around 325 prisoners at a separate LaSalle-run facility in Texarkana.

LaSalle's Cooper told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this year that the company had self-reported the problems to Texas regulators and implemented new measures to ensure that inmates were being routinely checked on.

Still, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas in September announced its opposition to the return of private prisons in Arkansas after a nearly two-decade hiatus.

Zachary Crow, the director of the group Decarcerate, similarly denounced the project on Tuesday. "Even more generally than the specific problems with LaSalle, private prisons are fundamentally immoral and seek to commodify people," Crow said. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, discussing the project with a reporter while on a trip to the Tucker Unit in Jefferson County last week, said that he expected LaSalle's operation in southeast Arkansas would be an improvement from the company's Texarkana facility, which he called "inadequate."

"They will have more services in the new regional jail versus what they have in Texarkana," Hutchinson said.

Once the new jail opens in southeast Arkansas, the Corrections Department plans to transfer all of its prisoners held at the Texarkana facility to the new jail.

At that point, the state will likely terminate its deal with LaSalle to hold inmates, said Division of Correction Chief of Staff Solomon Graves. That move would still allow the the division to transfer about 164 prisoners to the jail from the state's overcrowded prison system, Graves said.

"The expectation is to relieve some of the pressure on our prison facilities so that we don't have to build a $100 million prison," Hutchinson said.

The governor described the southeast Arkansas jail as a "pilot project," and Graves said the state is not in any current discussions with other counties to develop regional jails in other areas.

(501) 367-7890  l  contact@decarceratear.org  l  PO Box 7708, Little Rock, AR 72217  l   Newsletter

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