Prisons are full. Now what?

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

When critical needs aren’t being met, solutions come as a result of two activities: making hard choices and thinking creatively. With prisons, Arkansas has reached the point where it needs to do both.

The state’s prison system is now so full that about 2,500 state convicts are being housed at county jails that were never built for that purpose. The state reimburses counties $28 a day per inmate, the same rate as in 2001, despite counties’ average cost rising to $49 a day. Adding insult to injury, the state doesn’t reimburse counties until the inmate is discharged from jail or moved to the penitentiary. As a result of all this, counties are owed $7.7 million.

County governments, needless to say, are not happy about this. Testifying before four legislative committees Tuesday, Jackson County Sheriff David Lucas, president of the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, said his jail is so full that he’s had to obtain a court order ensuring only violent offenders are locked up. Because of this, nonviolent offenders are no longer paying their fines, and why should they? They know there’s no room in the jail. County voters have approved a tax increase to enlarge the facility, but construction has not begun.

Aware that this can’t continue, the Department of Correction is requesting a new 1,000-bed prison costing in the neighborhood of $100 million. That’s about the same size as the income tax decrease Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson pledged to enact during the campaign.

Sounds like it’s time for some of those hard choices mentioned in the first paragraph, doesn’t it? Should Arkansas build the prison and forego the tax cut? Should it do both, and cut somewhere else?

Another option – both a hard choice and the result of creative thinking – is to stop sending so many people to prison. Maybe there are better options for offenders who aren’t really threats to society. If the state stopped sending some of these struggling but save-able people to several years of “criminal school” in prison, maybe they wouldn’t become hardened criminals.

Here’s another case of creative thinking. Officials with LaSalle Corrections, a private prison provider based in Louisiana, told legislators Tuesday that they have room right now for 1,000 inmates near the Arkansas border. The cost would be about $28 a day – about what the state is paying as it underfunds counties. They can take them as fast as we can get them there.

It was a compelling case. The state Board of Corrections voted the next day to check into something like that.

Here’s the thing about using the private sector to perform traditional government operations: The private sector really is more efficient in many areas, but it tends to focus on picking low-hanging fruit and leaving the harder cases to the government. LaSalle Corrections does have medical staff at its facilities, but the $28 doesn’t cover big medical costs such as expensive drugs – and some inmates’ needs can be very expensive.

There’s also a philosophical question about the incentives created when imprisoning people becomes a commodity. What happens when corporations backed by lobbyists make more money by imprisoning more people as cheaply as possible? You might get more prisoners than you ought to have, and their needs might not be met – and yes, prisoners have needs. The officials with LaSalle seemed admirably sincere in their desire to help their inmates create better lives, but the state a few years ago tried using a private prison provider – Wackenhut Corrections Corp. – and it did not go well.

Is it worth a second try? It may have to be. Private prisons may be one necessary creative solution. But, as is usually the case when critical needs aren’t being met, hard choices still will have to be made.

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