Reopening the Arkansas Department of Correction’s Diagnostic Unit at Pine Bluff and providing funding for prison beds already completed or under construction at three other facilities would be only a Band-Aid, a member of the State Board of Corrections and a former legislator said Monday.
“We’ve got to look at building a new prison,” Bobby Glover said during a joint meeting of several committees of the Arkansas House and Senate that was held Monday at the Southeast Arkansas Community Corrections Center in Pine Bluff. “We’re facing a crisis and this state, this board, the governor and the Legislature are going to have to deal with it.”
Department of Correction Director Ray Hobbs said the the various units of the department held 12,432 males and 1,035 females Monday, 538 more than capacity. Another 1,179 people, including 35 women, were being held in county jails throughout the state awaiting prison beds.
Hobbs said that number is “the largest backup we’ve had in the last 14 months.”
Asked if part of that backup was the result of new legislation requiring people accused of violating parole to be held in jail pending a hearing, Hobbs said he didn’t know, but Sheila Sharp, director of the Department of Community Corrections, said it was not.
Sharp said 484 people statewide are waiting on revocation hearings.
Hobbs said there are 100 beds at the North Central Unit at Calico Rock, another 100 beds at the McPherson Unit for women, and 88 beds at Malvern that are ready to be opened, but the department doesn’t have the funds in its budget to open them.
Another 100 beds at the North Central Unit and 88 at the Springdale Work Release Center are under construction and expected to be ready early next year.
To open the 200 beds at the North Central Unit that are ready or will be ready early next year would cost $2.65 million, and another $1.8 million would be needed for the beds at the McPherson Unit, which Hobbs said will be special needs beds, for females who need high security or have mental health issues.
Hobbs said that when the Diagnostic Unit was closed, it had a capacity of 432 beds. With planned renovations, that figure would increase to 600. The unit would be used primarily for pre-release and re-entry inmates, and possibly also could house DCC prisoners waiting on hearings.
He said the corrections board will discuss the reopening when it meets next month, and he will recommend that it be approved.
Hobbs said the re-opening would take place in phases, with each of three planned phases costing about $4 million, and that funding is presently available through the prison construction fund to complete the first phase, with the other two phases following when funds are available.
State Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) who chaired the meeting, asked where that money came from, and Sharp said said each time a person buys a license plate in Arkansas, a portion of that fee is put into a bond fund for prison construction. Sharp said that fund has reached more than $4 million.
The additional beds at the Malvern Unit will also be for special-needs inmates and to open those beds would cost $2.1 million, Hobbs said.
Asked if that much of the inmate population needed to be categorized as “special needs,” Hobbs said “yes,” and when questioned by Flowers about what would happen if the department didn’t meet mental health and other standards, Hobbs said “inmates sue all the time. If they don’t get the proper treatment, we would have to go to court and defend the department.
“We’re receiving more violent, younger inmates and 80 percent of them have mental health or medical issues,” Hobbs said.