AR Board of Corrections pushes for new prison despite bad timing

NEWPORT, AR (KAIT) – The Arkansas Board of Corrections announced that it would like the state to invest and build a new prison to help alleviate overcrowding.

The board members agreed to push for a new 1,000-bed facility during their meeting Thursday at the Department of Correction Grimes Unit in Newport.

The board estimates that a prison of this size will likely cost the state about $75 million to build. The members expressed some reluctance before moving ahead with this recommendation because their request comes just as the legislature takes up another hot button issue related to health care.

Chairman Benny Magness said Thursday that he met with Governor Mike Beebe the day before to seek his support. Magness claims the governor endorsed the plan to build a new prison for $75 million. The chairman, however, said he will have to take an unusual step and look for state legislators who can help secure an additional $5 million needed to pay for the planning process for this newly proposed facility.

"An agency normally doesn't go outside the governor's recommendation," Magness said. "I finally came to the conclusion that it just had to be done and to go out his [recommendation] and to find legislators that are willing to support us. I think all of them would end up knowing how important the funding is."

Board members did express some reluctance before they all agreed to push for a new prison. That's because state lawmakers are also deciding whether or not to renew the so-called private option – a plan that legislators created to use federal Medicaid money to provide private insurance to low-income Arkansans through the health care exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act.

Magness shot down concerns that a proposal to build a new prison would catch legislators by surprise since he claimed this particular plan has been in the works now for two years. He said the prison project cannot wait any longer despite what might be poor timing.

"Maybe the timing's bad," Magness admitted. "I probably realize that, but I just can't lose the ability to ask now for it. The session is in, the financial session is in. I have to ask for it now. Whether the private option's there or not, I just have to ask because we would miss that opportunity for another year. Because as serious as it is to ask for this big of a move, we're not going to get a special session, so that's one of the reasons that I hated to ask because of the private option."

Magness outlined why the state needs a new 1,000-bed facility, stating that it would lead to fewer county jails having to house state inmates.

"I know that if you go to many of the sheriffs in the state of Arkansas, they can't take very much more," he said.

Magness said the Arkansas Department of Correction does not have enough beds right now for as many as 2,700 inmates. He admitted that a new prison will not solve the backlog, but said the situation's only going to get worse without it.

"I don't know that we've avoided our asking [for funding], but we know that we can't wait another year and then start the planning process," he said, "because the planning and building is going to take a minimum of four years."

The board of corrections will start collecting estimates for construction soon and will also meet with communities interested in possibly bringing in the prison.

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