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Overcrowding in Arkansas Prisons, Jails Spurs Call for Reforms

Overcrowding in Arkansas prisons and jails is straining resources, fomenting violence and resulting in an increase in lawsuits. The underlying cause is apparently tighter rules mandating tougher parole guidelines – which has resulted in a state prison system increasingly filled by prisoners denied parole and those re-incarcerated due to (often minor) parole violations.

In May 2013, two days following his release from prison, Darrell Dennis kidnapped and murdered 18-year-old Forrest Abrams. In the wake of that high-profile crime, the Arkansas Board of Corrections implemented new rules that restricted parole availability and triggered harsher penalties for technical violations of supervised release.

The tighter rules had an immediate impact on the prison population, resulting in a 17.7% increase from the previous year. That jump in 2013 was more than seven times the national average.

By August 2015, the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADOC) set a new population record, reaching around 19,000 prisoners – 3,000 more than its manageable population limit.

As reported by the Arkansas Times in June 2016, the ADOC took in 4,243 more prisoners in 2015 than it had in 2008. Of these, 4,158 were incarcerated due to parole or probation violations. Further, as reported by the Times, a third of probationers and parolees sent to prison in 2015 were incarcerated due to technical violations, having committed no new crimes.

To help decrease the ADOC’s population burdens, county jails began to take the state’s overflow prisoners. Such measures, however, have resulted in jails filled to capacity or above.

The Saline County Detention Center (SCDC) traditionally held people accused of a variety of low-level offenses. However, overcrowding in the state prison system pushed SCDC to house prisoners charged with more serious crimes such as murder, and to hold them longer while waiting for open state prison beds. Statewide, there are around 2,700 prisoners awaiting transfer to an ADOC facility.

The combination of overcrowding and ill-equipped jail staff has created a caustic environment at SCDC.

“There is something endemic about brutality in that place,” said attorney Ed Adock, referring to what he called a “culture of violence” at SCDC. Adcock and his law partner have represented over a half-dozen clients who suffered brutality by guards at the jail in recent years.

SCDC is only part of a trend of increased lawsuits against Arkansas prisons and jails. From 2010 through 2015, the number of federal court filings by or on behalf of prisoners increased 30 percent. Arkansas’ Eastern District federal district court had the most prison and jail lawsuits in 2015 of any region in the nation. The state’s Western District ranked third nationally.

“Overcrowding and the stress of supervising more people leads to more violence and neglect at the hands of officers – and more vindictive neglect,” said Omari Shuker, an attorney with Seeds of Liberation, a criminal justice reform group.

As with other jurisdictions, the ADOC is struggling to deal with its mentally ill population. The Arkansas Public Policy Panel issued a report in June 2015 that found it costs almost 20 times more to prosecute and incarcerate a person with mental illness than to treat and counsel them. The ADOC spends an estimated $150 million per year to house mentally ill prisoners, as opposed to the $7.5 million it would cost to provide them treatment. The state prison system has an annual budget of approximately $325 million. As such, the mentally ill population imposes a serious strain on the department’s resources.

Many of the lawsuits against the ADOC relate to inadequate medical care. A 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts report found that Arkansas has one of the lowest costs per prisoner annually for medical care compared to other prison systems, at around $4,166. Prisoners have reported they are regularly denied access to a doctor and routine medication.

Overcrowding in state prisons has resulted in prisoners being crammed in “like sardines,” said attorney Nicholas Rogers, who added they “are not being treated, they are being punished.”

With the third-fastest growing prison system in the nation, state officials are beginning to recognize they need to do something. In April 2015, the Arkansas legislature passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act, intended to introduce “wide ranging reforms to the criminal justice system in order to address prison overcrowding.”

Part of the plan was to create re-entry centers to provide skill training and assist prisoners in finding jobs up to 18 months prior to release. A spokesman for Governor Asa Hutchinson said the centers will “help rehabilitate inmates into society, which we haven’t really had in Arkansas.”

In 2015, Governor Hutchinson hired the non-profit Council of State Governments’ Justice Center to draft solutions for the state’s prison population woes.

The Council presented its findings and eight recommendations in October 2016. Among those recommendations, the state was urged to prioritize supervision resources with a focus on prisoners most likely to reoffend; to increase the availability of substance abuse treatment; to improve reentry residential facilities; to reduce sentences for parole and probation violations; to provide additional training to guards in dealing with mentally ill prisoners; and to reserve available prison space for offenders who have committed serious crimes. 



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