Saturday, March 28, 2015

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXI): Newton County joins the prison industrial complex

This is a post I have not been in a rush to write because I find the development more than a little depressing.  It's the story of the opening of Newton County's long-awaited jail.  My lack of enthusiasm for this project is suggested by the title of this post.  Read more here and here (embedding links to many prior posts) about Newton County's jail travails over the past 7-8 years.

You see, the only way Newton County was able ultimately to open the jail was through a contract with the State of Arkansas to house state prisoners--those state prisoners being in addition to whatever local riffraff might run afoul of the law and wind up in the local jail.  Following are some excerpts from the Newton County Times over recent months, including this report from October, 2014:
“I'm proud to say that things have gone better than what I have expected,” said Sheriff Keith Slape. “Our current census is 19. We have many active warrants that we are pursuing now and I'm sure the census will go up. “ He also said on Friday, Aug. 29, that the jail standards committee was at the facility at 10:30 a.m. to do its final inspection. This should lift the lawsuit against the county that the state attorney general filed when the old jail continually failed inspection, he noted. 
According to the first monthly report of operations, the jail had a total census of 34 with an average daily population of 21 inmates. 
The Arkansas Department of Corrections was assessed $14,700 for housing state prisoners. Other inmates were charged pay for stay for a total amount of $9,765. 
Total meals served daily totaled 63 with the month’s total oft 1,890 meals served. The average cost per meal is $1.01. The month’s total food cost was $2,216.32, according to the report. 
The quorum court [County Board of Supervisors] adopted a jail budget totaling $85,237.16 for the remainder of 2014. 
The jail’s budget was contingent upon receiving fees to house Arkansas Department of Corrections inmates due to overcrowding in state detention facilities. The General Assembly met in special session recently and released funds to help the department pay counties to house its prisoners and to make new spaces for additional beds. 
Slape had been waiting to open the jail until he received a written commitment from the department of corrections. He said he met with the corrections board and received that commitment. 
This editorial, which appeared in the Newton County Times on October 7, 2014, provides more information about the relationship between the State of Arkansas and counties across Arkansas:
When the Newton County Jail opened in September it was contingent upon an agreement from the state prison system that it would pay the county to house state prisoners. The state’s detention facilities are overcrowded. An agreement was reached, but the state is only paying the county $28 per prisoner per day. The state said they would pay for 15 beds, but would be willing to pay for more. Under the current agreement the state is paying the county $12,000 per month. This money is dedicated to the jail’s operation. Statewide, county jails estimate the reimbursement rate of $28 is well below the actual cost to counties, which is more like $45 per day. 
According to the Arkansas Association of Counties, there are about 2,300 state inmates being held in county jails throughout Arkansas. 
That is more than the largest state prison and this is despite the General Assembly appropriating in excess of $6 million to the Department of Corrections to hold more state prisoners during the Second Extraordinary Special Session of the 89th Arkansas General Assembly this summer. About 25 percent of county jail beds statewide are being used to hold state prisoners. 
At 2,300 state inmates, one year of reimbursements would be almost $24 million but the General Assembly appropriated only $16.5 million. Of this, $7 million is in category “B” funding, which will not be accessed until May/June 2015 and will actually manifest only if state revenues are better than projections. This means that the counties are owed from the state $1.95 million each month, but can only be paid, on average, about $750,000 each month to cover payments it owes to counties. 
The County Judges Association of Arkansas and the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association recently agreed to actively pursue a solution to a shortfall in state budgeting for county jail reimbursements for state inmates housed in county jails. They want the governor to call a Special Session of the General Assembly to amend the appropriation and funding of county jail reimbursement to provide for the prompt payment of the anticipated shortfall.
Both the sheriff’s and judges also feel that a1,600 prisoner threshold should be respected and adopted in budget recommendations by Gov. Beebe and the 89th General Assembly, and that the next governor of the state of Arkansas and 90th General Assembly duly provide for direct or indirect payment to private contractors for holding state inmates in excess of the 1,600 inmate threshold and to promptly appropriate, fund and pay the just debts of the state to the counties for holding state inmates for remainder of FY 2015 and FY 2016 at $45 dollars per day. 
Lawmakers will have to determine what is more cost efficient, building more and larger prisons or paying counties more for housing state prisoners. If it is the latter, we believe counties should be reimbursed for their actual costs. In some cases it may be less than $45 per day. In others it may be more.
You can see more clearly why I am thinking that this brings Newton County into the prison-industrial complex if you read this earlier post about the practice in Louisiana.

Here's more from the Newton County Times, starting with a January, 2014 Editorial, "Take Advantage of the Prisoner Boom":
During legislative budget hearings in preparation for the 2014 fiscal session, the governor presented a balanced budget proposal that projects more than $5 billion in general revenue spending. 
About $10 million in additional funding would go to the state Correction Department, which operates state prisons. About $7 million of that amount would be spent to reimburse county jails for costs incurred while holding state inmates.

Although the inmates are under the jurisdiction of the state, they are housed in county lockups because of a lack of space in state prison units. 
Newton County could receive some of that money if it’s [sic] jail gets up and running.
The Newton County Jail was dedicated in December 2011, but is still not housing prisoners. However, it may be open this spring thanks to an Arkansas Rural Development Commission Grant of $400,000. The grant comes from an appropriation made on behalf of the county by State Sen. Michael Lamoureux. The county’s cost of $1,050,000 and in-kind services used to build the facility serves as the local match. 
According to Newton County Sheriff Keith Slape, the grant will be presented to the county in two cycles. The county is receiving $219,004.31 in the grant’s first funding cycle. The second cycle goes from April through June and that is when the remainder of the grant is expected to be allocated. 
Slape said other sheriffs have told him the state has been about 100 days late in paying them for housing state prisoners, but the counties are being paid.

Presumably, the additional $7 million proposed for the state budget will get the state caught up with its commitments to the county jails. 
Newton County has also had to house its prisoners in other counties. A savings should be realized when the county can start housing its own prisoners. 
We also learned last week that the old jail, which is currently housing the Christian Food Room, will be reclaimed by the sheriff’s department for use as extra space for housing state prisoners. 
We should not consider this a long-term funding opportunity for Newton County. The increased funding for the Correction Department would bring the department’s annual operating budget to $316.1 million, and would also allow the department to open new prison units with capacity for about 300 inmates.
As for using the old jail to house state prisoners, that seems impossible—and certainly contrary to civil rights law and perhaps the U.S. Constitution.  You see, the state condemned the old jail several years ago, which is why the county embarked on this long quest for a new jail—the one just opened.

And to complete the economic picture, here is the text of the August 10, 2014, story titled, "Newton Jail hiring."
Newton County Sheriff Keith Slape said the budget for the Newton County Jail approved by the Newton County Quorum Court this week will undoubtedly help the county’s economy. 
* * *
The jail, having been inspected and meeting standards, is expected to open in about two weeks. Jailers and dispatchers are undergoing cross training so all staff will be certified in both areas, Slape told justices of the peace [Quorum Court]. 
* * * 
Slape has been waiting to open the jail until he received a written commitment from the Department of Correction. He said he met with the corrections board last week at England, [Arkansas] and received that commitment. 
“It’s taken a while to get done,” Slape told the Daily Times
* * *
The budget establishes employees’ compensation for the final five months of the year: An administrator, $9,240; a sergeant, $8,360; eight full-time jailers, $7,480 each; two part-time jailers, $5,984 each and a nurse, $3,960. Along with Social Security, retirement, health insurance, unemployment and other fringe benefits the total budget is $133,177.50. 
* * *
Slape said the department of corrections wants to transfer its first inmates to Newton County from Sebastian County on Monday, Aug. 25. Newton County District Judge Tommy Martin is also eager to begin sentencing jail time to defendants found guilty of committing certain crimes.
As far as I am concerned, this is all really bad news.  Newton County was better off without a jail—especially if the only thing that made the jail viable was incarceration of state prisoners.  No two ways about it:  Little ol' Newton County, Arkansas has become part of the prison industrial complex.

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