The Legislative Council cut off debate on motion of wannabe Senate President Pro Tem Bart Hester yesterday and waved along a slick deal to privatize prison beds in Arkansas without a bidding process or direct state participation. Bad timing, as it happened.
The state is promising to provide 500 inmates a year to a private lockup built and nominally operated for Bradley and Drew Counties by LaSalle Corrections of Ruston, La. There were no bids. Nobody would ever say why the counties were doing the deal and not the state itself. Easy answer. State deniability and lack of a procurement process for a $163 million state contract. Also, lobbyist for the private firm is Gilmore Strategies, owned by Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s chief political fund-raiser and political strategist and employing other former members of his staff.
LaSalle? We know them. They operate a problem-plagued private jail in Texarkana, among others. How big the problems? As luck had it, yesterday, this story broke out of Dallas TV reporting.
Holly Austin got critically ill in a jail run by a for-profit company.
— THV11 (@THV11) December 21, 2019
By the time jailers at the Bi-State Jail in Texarkana sent Holly Austin to the hospital this past June, she was “blind” and “unable” to even sign her name on the admission paperwork.
She was in severe pain, disoriented, couldn’t walk and “unable to hold objects in her hands,” according to hospital records obtained by WFAA.
As Holly lay near death, the sheriff suddenly ordered her released from custody. The result? When Austin did die soon after, the private, for-profit company that operates the jail was not required to report her death to state officials nor was her death criminally investigated.
A WFAA investigation found the company, LaSalle Corrections, taking advantage of a loophole that allows jails to avoid criminal investigations into the deaths of some prisoners who become critically ill while in custody. The loophole allows authorities to release a prisoner, and then when they die, there is no requirement that a criminal investigation be conducted or that potential evidence be preserved.
Gov. Hutchinson and LaSalle swear conditions will be better in the Bradley-Drew lockup. If not, county officials might someday rue their lack of due diligence in serving as a cutout for the state’s move back into the risky business of private prisons. Lower costs to the state likely will mean lower pay to employees, poorer services for inmates and a high potential for abuse.
Legislative resistance Friday came primarily from three Democratic Little Rock legislators — Joyce Elliott, Will Bond and Frederick Love — before discussion ended. At least one other legislator showed diligence last night on Twitter, Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville). Mark her words:
(1/5) The legislature just approved a contract that will pay for a private prison in South Arkansas. From the beginning, there has been a lack of robust discussion around this $163million contract.
Debate was cut short this morning, too. Here’s what I was going to say:
— Nicole Clowney (@NicoleClowneyAR) December 20, 2019
She continued on Twitter:
All the data is clear that poor prison conditions lead to higher rates of recidivism. The LaSalle facility in Texarkana has a documented history of exactly these types of poor conditions – deaths, failure to conduct cell checks, to provide medical care. On and on.
These should be serious concerns for all of us because people simply should not be treated in this way. Our prisoners deserve humane living conditions, just like all of us do.
And we should also be concerned because we know that when folks leave prisons with these types of conditions, they are more likely to re-offend and end up back in prison. Our communities are less safe.
Poor conditions make it more likely that prisoners will re-offend. LaSalle has a history of poor conditions. Why should we believe that increasing LaSalle’s presence in AR will make our communities safer, when all the evidence indicates it will make us less safe?