Arkansas governor attacks Corrections Board over denial of plan to add 500 prison beds
UPDATE: This story was updated at 3:40 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, with additional information about the proposal to add more state prison beds.
Arkansas’ governor and top criminal justice officials leveled a public broadside against the State Board of Corrections over disagreement on a plan to expand the state’s prison capacity.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a Friday morning news conference said the board last week refused to approve Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri’s plan to add 500 beds for inmates in state custody “for no good reason whatsoever.”
“For far too long many in positions of leadership have chosen to ignore the issue and kick the can down the road,” Sanders said. “Unfortunately, some of those in positions of leadership are still playing games that put Arkansans in harm’s way.”
She urged the board to hold an emergency meeting and approve Profiri’s plan.
On Nov. 6, Department of Corrections Director Dexter Payne requested permission to add 622 temporary beds to relieve some of the state inmate load currently on county jails.
The extra beds would have been added as follows:
• 60 beds in the gymnasium at Ouachita River Correctional Unit.
• 124 beds in existing barracks at Ester Unit.
• 70 beds in existing barracks at North Central Unit.
• 244 beds in a vacant building at McPherson Unit.
• Reactivating 124 beds at the Re-Entry Center at the Maximum Security Unit.
The board approved the requested 130 beds across the Ouachita River and North Central Units; it did not approve the additional beds at Ester, McPherson, and the Maximum Security Unit, according to Corrections Department spokeswoman Dina Tyler.
It wasn’t clear why the request was rejected at the latter three facilities, and Corrections Board Chairman Benny Magness didn’t return a phone call and text message Friday.
Arkansas has long lacked the space inside its correctional facilities to hold the number of people being convicted and sentenced to time behind bars. Sanders said Friday that the number of correctional beds in the state lagged the number of those sentenced to incarceration by about 2,000.
As of Friday, there were 16,292 inmates in state prisons, according to Tyler. Arkansas’ prison system is rated to house up to 15,022 inmates. Additionally Friday, there were 1,895 inmates backed up in county jails awaiting state prison beds.
There are split public policy approaches to solving the problem of prison overcrowding.
Criminal justice reform advocates point to data showing that increased incarceration doesn’t always improve public safety, suggesting changes should focus on diverting more convicted individuals away from prison.
The other approach — and the one that has been adopted by the governor and most of Arkansas’ Republican elected officials — is to add more prison space. The General Assembly also passed legislation, with Sanders’ support, to increase the time repeat offenders and those convicted of the state’s most serious offenses must spend incarcerated.
One state solution over the past decade has been to pay county jails to house state inmates, but that has led to severe overcrowding in county lockups across Arkansas — much to the frustration of sheriffs and county judges. It has also taken away space traditionally used to house those sentenced to shorter terms of incarceration for misdemeanor violations.
The state, starting in former Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s second term, began the process of constructing new prison space, and Sanders’ administration has set aside money to build a new prison and add more than 3,000 new beds to the state’s capacity. The state last built a new prison in 2005.
But new construction takes time, so Profiri since his appointment early this year has been searching for ways to add additional capacity with the Department of Corrections’ existing space.
In April, the Board of Corrections approved a plan to add more than 450 temporary beds in existing community correction facilities and prisons.
Profiri said Friday that expansion plans would keep criminals off the street without creating unsafe environments within the prison system.
“Any beds that I have added or any beds I will add or request to add will not create any unsafe prisons,” he said. “I will not deviate from the mission of safe prisons.”
Attorney General Tim Griffin said the Board of Corrections’ opposition to the plan made Arkansas less safe, and he said it might mean that the state Legislature should look at constitutional or statutory reforms to the makeup and role of the board.
The seven-member board is charged with oversight of the Department of Corrections, and its members are appointed by the governor to seven-year terms.
Amendment 33 to the Arkansas Constitution gives the governor authority to remove members “for cause only, after notice and hearing.”