QUESTION TIME: Attorney Cliff Gibson takes questions from Drew County Quorum Court. From Monticello Live video.

The state is pushing hard for Bradley and Drew Counties to build a regional jail that the state could then use to house 500 state inmates rather than build a new state prison.

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Drew County is taking the lead. It has been dickering in private with LaSalle Corporation, a Louisiana-based prison operator. Monday night, the Drew County Quorum Court discussed the matter at length. As the Democrat-Gazette has reported, and mentioned in a followup today,  the county judges entered agreements with LaSalle without a competitive process. Republican State Rep. Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage and Drew County Judge Robert Akin have been doing the talking with LaSalle and county quorum court members are mostly in the dark. “There was not very much on the table on this,” JP Tommy Gray was quoted in the D-G.

No kidding. Where will the prison be? Will people involved in the dickering perhaps have business connections to LaSalle in the future?  Greg Reep of Warren, a former state representative, asked at a Monday meeting of the Bradley County Quorum Court an essential question: “Why is the state not willing to directly contract with a private company for 500 state inmates? Why is it going through the counties?”

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The counties are concerned where the prison will be located. As private property, it will be taxable.

How is it, Reep wonders, that the counties are negotiating with LaSalle without taking requests for proposals from other operators? Why hasn’t a procurement process been followed? Reep said the county judge wouldn’t respond Monday night. He said two Quorum Court members said they were as much in the dark as he was.

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Monticello Live has posted extensive video clips of the Drew County meeting Monday, much of it county attorney Cliff Gibson answering questions, including about the exclusion of state Rep. LeeAnne Burch from the negotiating process. He promised transparency. He said he’d hoped to have a final contract with LaSalle this week, but needed Bradley County to have a corresponding agreement first.

I’d suggest all parties answer Reep’s question first. And then have an open procurement process if the counties indeed decide they want to be a cutout for the state to engage a private operator to handle their jails, enticed by, if not potential profit from a state contract, a reduction of their costs in operating local jails.

LaSalle has had questions raised about its operations in the past, as have most private prison operators. They make a profit by reducing costs. Reducing costs can have implications for staffing and prison services.

In this time of justice reform, a return to gulags doesn’t seem particularly reform-minded. But Arkansas has defied the national trend for reducing prison populations, part of the reason it’s now seeking more beds at the cheapest possible cost and dickering with a prison operator that knows how to play the political game, with campaign contributions and hiring of connected people. LaSalle’s lobbyist is Gilmore Strategies, headed by Jon Gilmore, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s former deputy chief of staff and a campaign strategist and fund-raiser for the governor with many clients interested in state business. Smell anything here?

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Again: This proposed “regional jail” will hold about 55 county beds (roughly 44 for  Drew and 12 for Bradley) and 500 state inmates. Why are the counties being put in charge of what is essentially a state prison? A spokesman for LaSalle confirmed that the promise of state prisoners makes the deal profitable for them.

This bears watching.

PS: Speaking of LaSalle, PBS did a couple of installments over its operation and use by ICE over the weekend.

One installment here.

And here’s another one.

A reader comments:

Wonder how LaSalle can run the proposed south Arkansas prison for only $30 per prisoner per day that covers fairly paid staff, meals, security, medical, construction and maintenance of facilities, etc., and still make a profit?  We both know the answer to that question.
I see where some of LaSalle’s corrections officers (Raymondville, TX) make as little as $9 hour: