Correction officials to ask lawmakers for up to $100 million for new prison


LITTLE ROCK — State correction officials told a legislative panel Thursday they will ask for between $75 million and $100 million next year to build a 1,000-bed prison to reduce overcrowding.

The proposed prison would cost about $25 million a year to maintain, Benny Magness, chairman of the state Board of Corrections, testified during a joint meeting of the House and Senate judiciary and state agencies and governmental affairs committees.

Within the next 60 days, the Board of Corrections plans to issue a request for proposals from communities interested in being home to the prison, Magness said.

“Are any communities jumping up and down for this facility?” asked Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff.

“Yes ma’am. I’ve had several calls,” Magness said.

Talking later to reporters, Magness said communities are interested in the proposed prison because it would employ about 400 people.

“Unfortunately, it usually is not an industry that’s going to pick up and leave,” he said. “If you think about some of our facilities, how old they are, like Cummins (Unit, in Lincoln County) is 100 years, past 100 years. Once we go there we pretty well stay.”

The prison would take about three years to build, he said.

State Department of Community Correction Director Sheila Sharp told the committees the department will ask for funding to hire 201 additional probation and parole officers over the next four or five years, starting with 45 new officers in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Sharp said the department will ask for an additional $9.5 million in general revenue in 2015-16 and a little over $12 million in 2016-17.

Currently, probation and parole officers have an average of well over 100 cases each, she said.

“We think additional supervision officers are going to make all the difference in the world. We simply don’t have enough,” she told the committees.

During a special legislative session that ended July 2, state lawmakers approved a measure to shift $6.3 million a year from the Central Services Fund to the Department of Correction to fund up to 604 prison beds. The Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association had asked for action to address a backup of state prisoners being held in county jails while waiting for prison space to become available.

Flowers noted that as of Wednesday the backup consisted of 2,330 inmates. She asked Magness how much he expected the additional $6.3 million to allow that number to be reduced.

Magness said that with the prison population growing rapidly, “if we open up 600 beds, that has no direct relation to what they’re going to put on the backup list after we open that up.”

“Because you’re still not going to be able to clear out everybody that’s in the county jails now?” Flowers said.

“That’s correct,” Magness said.

According to a Department of Community Correction report, Arkansas’ prison population jumped 17.7 percent in 2013, the highest single-year increase in state history. The nation as a whole experienced a 2.2 percent increase in the number of inmates last year.

Magness and Sharp were asked after the meeting how optimistic they were about getting their requests approved.

“Our job is to show them our needs,” Magness said. “We know we’re going to have to have a 1,000-bed prison.”

“I’m hopeful,” Sharp said. “We’ve been telling our story.”