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Arkansas considers private prison as capacity is surpassed

September 25, 2019 GMT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Board of Corrections will consider a proposal to bring back private prisons after an 18-year hiatus because state facilities are running out of space, potentially returning to a system that some officials call ineffective.

The state proposed a contract that would allow Louisiana-based LaSalle Correction to build a 500-inmate capacity prison in either Drew County or Bradley County, in southern Arkansas. It will be considered during a meeting Thursday.

“We have been down the road of having private lockups in the state and we got rid of them because they did not work in any way the state wanted its name attached to,” said State Sen. Joyce Elliott, a Democrat from Little Rock who opposes the project.

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Wackenhut Corrections Corp., which was Arkansas’ last private prison operator, closed down in 2001, citing the high cost of running two facilities in Newport. At the time, the Board of Corrections was weighing whether to retake control of the prisons over concerns that the company had understaffed the units and left prisoners living in unsanitary conditions, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Now, prison officials say the need for a new facility has increased because the state prison population has grown and more inmates have to be housed in county jails.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections housed an average of 15,628 prisoners in July, which is more than 500 above its official capacity. An additional 1,466 state inmates, on average, were held in county jails.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson is in favor of the proposed project, said his spokesman, J.R. Davis. He said the governor has “always supported the concept of a regional jail pilot.”

Benny Magness, chairman of the Board of Corrections, said lawmakers would have to review the plan and noted that the text of the contract on the board’s agenda says that its terms are “subject to the advice and consent of the Legislative Council.”

The facility will be built in one of the counties, and it’s not yet clear which one. The newspaper was unable to reach the county judges of Drew County, Robert Akin, or Bradley County, Klay McKinney, Tuesday learn whether any contract has been signed.

Either way, both counties are expected to contract with LaSalle to operate the facility. Under a separate proposed 20-year contract, the state would pay the counties $44 daily to house each inmate. Housing inmates at state prisons costs an average of about $60 daily.

Since 2015, Arkansas has been paying $36 per inmate per day to house up to 300 inmates at a LaSalle-operated jail in Texas, according to prison spokeswoman Dina Tyler. Those inmates would be moved to the proposed prison if it’s approved, Magness said.

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com