Old Diagnostic Unit could see new role

The Arkansas Department of Correction’s Diagnostic Unit at Pine Bluff, which was closed in 2012, could be reopened if the state corrections board agrees.

Department spokeswoman Shea Wilson said Tuesday the department is looking at renovating the old unit to house 400 inmates who are nearing parole, and would focus heavily on getting those prisoners ready to re-enter society.

In addition, Wilson said the facility also could be used to house 200 parolees who are backed up in county jails awaiting revocation hearings, which “would take some of the burden off county jails.”

She said the backup in county jails around the state Tuesday was 1,030.

Wilson said the renovations would occur in phases and the department is working on costs projections.

The Corrections Board is expected to discuss the idea when it meets in September.

When the Diagnostic Unit closed in January 2012, the inmates who were housed there were moved to a new special-needs unit at Malvern, which opened in 2010. The special-needs wing of the prison had space for 744 beds, including a 72-bed hospital and 40-bed special services area.

Special-needs inmates are classified as those who are sick or elderly, and at the time the Pine Bluff unit closed, it was housing about 400 inmates.

Last year, the corrections board approved transferring $18 million that had funded the Diagnostic Unit to the operation of the facility at Malvern, which Wilson said was more energy-efficient and would cost less to maintain. The Diagnostic Unit is more than 30 years old.

A new board of corrections mandate that took effect in July prohibits the release of parolees who have failed to appear in court twice and requires parolees to be jailed pending a mental evaluation.

According to an Arkansas News Bureau story Monday, more than 800 parolees have been held in jails around the state under the new law, rather than be released pending a hearing.