At a state Board of Corrections meeting in Russellville on Thursday, board members and Arkansas Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley discussed expanding the number of beds in prison facilities used for segregating certain prisoners from the rest of the population.
“There needs to be more of a way to lock-up troublemakers,” said Dr. William ‘Dubs’ Byers, a member of the board, citing concerns about the lack of beds for administrative and punitive segregation.
Byers said that incidents over the summer — including two breakouts at the Maximum Security Unit at Tucker — “brought to the surface” growing concerns that the ADC did not have enough space to segregate certain prisoners.
“If I was asked today: ‘What kind of facility do we need to build?’ We need to build a maximum security facility where we can lock inmates down,” Kelley told the board. “Today, we would want those single man cells.”
She added that, at the moment, expanding prison beds was not politically likely.
To deal with one of the fastest growing prison populations in the country, the state legislature decided to make broad changes to the criminal justice system with Act 423, which goes into effect Oct. 1., but did not expand the number of prison beds.
Following the lead of a report by the Council of State Governments, which found recidivism to be the largest driver of the prison increase in Arkansas, Act 423 took aim at fixing a system that sent those on probation and parole in Arkansas back to prison for small offenses disproportionality.
But the ADC and board still “see a need for increased capacity,” according to ADC spokesperson Solomon Graves.
“[The prison system] is still growing at 29 beds a month,” Graves said.
Currently, 16,243 prisoners are held by ADC in their facilities, with an additional 1,460 held in county jail back-up.
Kelley said during the summer there had been specifically a greater need for segregated units to respond to what she called a “cyclical” pattern of increased incidents that occur during the hotter months. The new beds could be used for multiple purposes, she said.
“You could still use them for beds if you didn’t have to have restrictive housing, but the way things are going, that’s what I believe the state’s going to need. I hope re-entry [is] successful. I hope we turn around 80 percent of them. But, even if we do, there’s going to be 20 percent,” she said.
Kelley echoed Byers’ and other board members concern of the influence of certain prisoners on the greater population, necessitating an increase of segregated cells to separate those prisoners from the greater population.
“There’s probably about 15 or 20 percent of the people that come to prison that you can’t do anything with. They’re incorrigible,” Byers said, adding there are another 15 to 20 percent who will, no matter what, do everything to not come back to prison. “If these incorrigible [are] there mixed in with this 50 or 60 percent that you can do something with, then that messes them up. So, we need to segregate those 15 percent or whatever and get them out of the system and lock them down.”
Each unit of the ADC has some form of segregated housing, other than Work Release Centers,
has a segregation unit where inmates are held separate from the rest of the population, often in one- or two-person cells.
Inmates sent to administrative segregation — which can be used as a “management tool,” said Graves — can be given more recreation time, whereas those on punitive segregation, which is a punishment after a disciplinary hearing, are not give more recreation time.
ADC changed its administrative segregation policies effective Feb. 1, according to Graves, to only allow administrative segregation “in response to behavior that can cause a direct threat.”
Before inmates could be sent to segregation for saying they would not work, or other nonthreatening behavior.
Kelley told the board the ADC is still in the process of making segregation work in its units — noting, “We still have people locked up in restrictive housing who don’t need to be there.”
She said the department is working to ensure that those in segregation who should not be there are released, freeing up space for segregation.
“We’re not where we need to be, but we are working on it,” she said.
Kelley also said fixing segregation could help with employee shortages.
She told the story of visiting an inmate who, she said, told her that he wanted to kill a correction officer to end up on death row.
“Well, why would people want to come work for us when they have to work around people like you, who say, ‘My desire is to kill one of you so I could end up on death row,’” she said she told the inmate. “That doesn’t make people want to come work for the department of correction. And, if they are not here to work than we are not going to be able to do any of the positive things that we would like to be doing for this population to improve life here and make it a better workplace for employees.”