Jailhouse blues 

Inmates stacked to the walls.

JAILHOUSE BLUES: Perry County's jail is at times operating at triple the legal inmate capacity.
  • JAILHOUSE BLUES: Perry County's jail is at times operating at triple the legal inmate capacity.

‘Yakity-yak' from the pols.

Money's bad.

Judges mad.

‘Tough's' gotten us

by the ... wallet 

Perry County Sheriff Scott Montgomery currently presides over one of the worst jails in Arkansas. Earlier this year, a state oversight committee noted:

“The county has more inmates than the jail's design capacity can accommodate. Inmates in excess of 12 are sent to other county jails for housing. As a result, the county has 773 outstanding warrants that cannot be served because the jail is too small. This means that people who should be in jail are on the streets.”

In fact, Sheriff Montgomery says that's not exactly the case. Instead of sending prisoners to other counties when his jail's capacity of 12 has been reached, he admits he's been doubling — and at times almost tripling — his jail's legal capacity.

“We typically have 25 to 30 in there,” Montgomery says. “The ones who don't have beds sleep on the floor. The standards say we can't do that, but we space them out. And we give them double mattresses.”

Montgomery has been working for years to get a new county jail — one that would relieve the chronic overcrowding. Next month, he'll move his crowded prisoners into a brand new, 28-bed jail.

Is he happy? “Worried” would be a better word.

“This jail was out of compliance [with state standards] for several years, since way before I became sheriff in January 2007. People started working to get a new jail back in the early part of this decade.

“The first battle was over location. Nobody wanted the jail built near them. So the site they finally agreed on was here, next to our current one. I voted against it because of the site. We were limited in how big we could build it, and there's not much room for expansion.”

The next battle was over funding. In 2005, county officials asked for a tax that would generate $3 million for a new jail. Voters said no. In 2007, however, faced with increased residential crime, they did approve a jail tax of $1.3 million.

The result, in Montgomery's view, is a new jail that's already too small, with minimal room for expansion. He reflects, “We should have built a jail with 50 to 60 beds.”

At the same time, Montgomery says he understands the voters' dilemma. They're frightened by crime on one hand, and facing a harsh economy on the other.

“People are very concerned. Our thefts, right now, are sky-rocketing. I think that's because our economy's so bad. People are really struggling. And the more desperate people get, the more crime you have to contend with.”

Perry County's situation is a microcosm of the angst being felt across the state. In a conference room at the state Capitol last week, a crime victim, two police officers, and several county and state officials gathered to, essentially, wring their hands about the severity of Arkansas's lock-up crisis.

Shirley Simpson of North Little Rock, told the group that burglars had broken into her house two years in a row. “The police know who did it,” she said, “but there was no room for them in the jail.” She demanded more prisons and jails. “Think of us victims,” she said.

A county judge from northwest Arkansas told the group: “We're either going to keep prisoners in jail or repair county roads. That's the decision I've got to make.”

A state senator fretted that, “Every one of us knows you can't appear soft on crime and be re-elected.” To which, a member of the Arkansas Board of Corrections replied: “It's not about ‘soft on crime' anymore. It's about utilizing resources.”

The spokesman for the state prison system reiterated that view. “These are desperate times,” she said. “Our backs are against the wall.”


‘A very dangerous place'

Conditions in some county jails add to the concern. For the safety of prisoners, jail staff and people living near jails, Arkansas has set minimum standards for jail operations. A two-person state office coordinates volunteer committees to inspect the state's 69 county lock-ups and 38 city jails.

The inspections are announced well in advance. Even so, some of the reports that result from those inspections are hair-raising.

Here are a few excerpts from letters the state Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committees sent this year to county judges about deficiencies in their jails.

Fulton County: “insufficient staff,” “very dangerous for inmates and staff,” “visitation very dangerous.”

Jackson County: “holding more than double capacity,” “insufficient staff,” “growing problems,” “potential for a great disaster to happen.”

Ouachita: “Chronic overcrowding,” “inmates are sleeping on the floor,” “inadequate security threatens health and safety of the staff and inmates and potentially the community.”

Pulaski: “Too small for the county's needs.”

Scott: “A health and security risk.”

Sharp: “Badly understaffed,” “a dangerous situation waiting to happen.”

Besides Perry, eight counties are currently building new jails, and three are expanding existing ones. If improvements are not made quickly enough — or if the improvements are inadequate — the jail standards office can ask the state attorney general to petition the local circuit court to force the jail into compliance or order the jail closed.

That's exactly what happened in Newton County. In July, that jail did close.

Alarming as the committees' reports may appear, the actuality may be worse. Al Garrett, who was appointed earlier this year by Gov. Mike Beebe to serve on one of the inspection committees, says he was “shocked” by what he considered the “sloppy” inspections in which he participated and the “fraudulent” reports that resulted.

Before retiring, Garrett, of Perryville, managed the state Child Support Enforcement Division and Home Energy Assistance Programs for the Arkansas Department of Human Services. He came to the committee with a background in reconciling audits and managing program compliance reviews.

However, after his committee performed a one-hour inspection tour of the Pulaski County Regional Jail and a one-hour review of the Pulaski County Juvenile Detention Facility, he came away concerned that the inspections had been “fake,” and that the subsequent reports, which “indicated full compliance with every standard,” were “lacking in integrity.”

In April, Garret sent a letter to Beebe. “As you are aware, many of the standards require that written policies and procedures be in place, specifying minimum criteria and written documentation for many of them,” he wrote. “However, the inspections had touched on few of these, and we looked at neither policies and procedures nor the accompanying documentation requirements.”

Garrett told the governor that his experience on the committee left him feeling “disappointed, thinking that, if the 23,000 adults and nearly 1,200 juveniles detained in the prior year at these facilities had been dependent on these inspections, they would have been in serious jeopardy.” He's received no response.


A system that's crashed

County jails are meant to hold two types of people: those who are awaiting trial and, in some cases, those who've been tried and sentenced to relatively short terms for misdemeanors. As of October, the total capacity of all 72 county adult jails was 8,461.

Juvenile offenders are held in some county jails and in secure facilities operated by the Department of Youth Services. Their combined count in October was 1,286.

Offenders convicted of felonies are sentenced to the Arkansas Department of Correction. For decades, however, that department has itself been chronically short of space, despite gigantic expansions. Its solution has been to back up convicted felons awaiting transfer to state prisons in their county jails until space in the state system becomes available.

County officials complain bitterly that, while officials in the state prison system admit that their per-inmate cost runs about $62.61 a day, the state pays counties only $28 a day for all of their inmates backed up in local jails. As one county judge put it, “Our costs aren't fixed, but our reimbursement is.”

The situation has grown so absurd that some counties, such as Pulaski, have to pay to farm out their prisoners to jails in other counties because their own jails are loaded up with state inmates. This is a particular problem for Pulaski County.

When it proves impossible even to free beds by farming out prisoners, jails simply postpone accepting new ones. By early October, first-term Little Rock District Judge Alice Lightle had grown so disgusted with that situation that she wrote to city officials to express her surprise and dismay that prisoners she ordered to jail were being turned away for lack of space.

Mayor Mark Stodola, to whom Lightle's letter was addressed, said he understood the judge's frustration but that the problem — lack of jail space and lack of public support for new taxes to build new jails — was well known. He told a reporter, “I read the letter and said, ‘Yeah. What's new?' ”

In contrast to jails, prisons are built for offenders who've been convicted of felonies that carry longer sentences. In 1980, the state corrections agency consisted of one department with six units.

In 1993, it was divided into two departments: the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC), which runs prisons, and the Department of Community Correction (DCC), which manages probation and parole. Together they now operate 26 units.

By now, the ADC has almost 16,000 inmates under its control, 30 percent more than in 2000. And the pace of growth continues.

Last week, ADC spokesman Dina Tyler told the group at the state Capitol, “The department is in a difficult spot, in that we're growing at a rate of 66 inmates a month. That's twice the rate we had last year.”

Most states have begun to slow the rate at which they're sending people to prison. By contrast, the U.S. Justice Department has reported that only four states — Florida, Arizona, South Carolina and Mississippi — are imprisoning residents faster than Arkansas.

The DCC, meanwhile, has approximately 55,000 probationers and parolees under its control. (Probation is a sentence to supervision in lieu of prison; parole is supervision after release from prison.)

DCC officials report a 4 to 5 percent annual growth in parolees (and 1 percent growth in probationers). According to the most recent U.S. Justice Department analysis, Arkansas's rate of parolees-to-adult-population is triple the national average, and second-highest in the nation.

In his efforts to tackle the national rate of incarcerating Americans — now five times that of the rest of the world — Sen. James Webb of Virginia has noted: “Either we are the most evil people on earth, or we are doing something very wrong.”

Arkansas's statistics raise a parallel question: Are Arkansans worse than other Americans? If not, we've got a lot to correct.


The quagmire

The entire system — from arrest to jail, to probation or prison, and then to parole — responds to decisions by prosecutors, courts and juries. And, of course, those decisions are predicated on laws passed by the legislature.

Arkansas's surge in incarceration reflects a national surge that began in the 1970s, when states began enacting strict laws against drug abuse. Debate rages about whether these laws have been effective, and to what extent, if any, tightened drug laws may have spurred the growth of gangs and drug-related crimes.

But there is no doubt that the zero-tolerance laws of the past few decades led to explosive prison growth throughout America. The figures here are telling.

Today, the number of offenders in the ADC and DCC together totals about 71,000. That's about 25 of every 1,000 residents.

Add those being held in county adult and juvenile jails and in juvenile facilities run by the state Department of Youth Services, and the total number of Arkansans under some kind of governmental control approaches 80,000 (not counting federal inmates or persons held in city jails). That's only about a thousand less than the population of Fort Smith, Arkansas's second-largest city.

Not surprisingly, the cost of housing, feeding, guarding or supervising, and providing medical care for such a large population is enormous — and growing.

Even with recent cutbacks, the combined budgets of the ADC and DCC will top $344 million. To put that in perspective, next year's budget for the University of Arkansas system is $390 million.

Unfortunately, the cost comparison of prisons to higher education doesn't end there.

At the current daily rate of $62.61, the cost of keeping an inmate in an Arkansas prison for a year runs to $22,853. That amount would pay for a four-year scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, books and fees included.

Yet, while state prison costs have risen, counties are stuck keeping backed-up state inmates at a state-set reimbursement rate of $28 that hasn't changed for a decade. Rep. Allen Kerr of Little Rock has fought hard to get that changed, but his attempt in the last legislative session to raise the rate to $40 failed.

“I believe, if we've got a bill to pay, we need to pay it,” Kerr says. “When the state realizes an increase in cost, it should take into consideration that the counties are providing a service to them, and should pay for that accordingly.”

Nevertheless, Kerr does not expect an increase to be approved in the next budgetary session. “It's really hard to make your case that we need more money when there's less money than there was.” 

Kerr said he'd tried to impress upon Gov. Beebe the urgency of the counties' need for higher payments. But Kerr said that the governor's spokesman, Matt DeCample, told him, “This governor does not want to change that rate at this time.”

Kerr said that Beebe has instead “tasked those in the systems to come up with alternative solutions” to escalating incarceration. It was for that reason that Kerr called the representatives of law enforcement, county governments, and corrections agencies to meet last week at the Capitol.

All of the dozen or so participants were taking a hard look at statistics.


Where to cut?

According to polls, most citizens believe prisons hold mostly violent offenders, but that is not the case, either nationally or here. In Arkansas, more than 53 percent of all inmates sentenced to the ADC are serving time for nonviolent crimes.

Someone at the table proposed, “We're going to have to sort out the folks we're just mad at from the ones we're afraid of.”

But Chief Stuart Thomas of the Little Rock Police Department begged to differ. “I've heard the suggestion that a nonviolent offender is not a problem. We seem to forget that a nonviolent felon is still a felon and a problem in our communities.”

He noted that many of these people were the ones who were “breaking into houses and stealing people's TVs and Xboxes, and GPSs. They traffic in stolen merchandise. And then they go to dope houses. And buy guns.”

That noted, the group looked at the single biggest category of crime for which inmates are in prison — one that scarcely existed three decades ago. One in five state inmates (21.4 percent) today is serving time on some sort of drug charge. (After drugs, the two biggest categories are sexual offenses, at 16.6 percent, and homicide, at 14.5 percent.)

What about drug laws?

In fact, the legislature has already cut back on some. A bill passed in 1997 to address the growing problem of illegal methamphetamine required that inmates convicted of meth crimes serve 70 percent of their sentences, despite whatever “good time” they might accrue.

By 2005, that requirement was pushed back to 50 percent, because of how drastically it had exacerbated overcrowding. Last year, the loosened law was extended to allow more inmates to leave.

The ADC said the move would free up 600 beds. They were immediately filled.

Now, decisions to lock up drug users are getting more scrutiny. Sen. Bill Pritchard of Elkins, the Senate minority whip, suggested it “may be time to revisit those meth laws again, and make meth offenders serve the same as everyone else,” without the mandatory minimum sentence.

Pritchard, a self-described “conservative Republican,” also reminded the group that Arkansas law makes the second offense for simple possession of marijuana a felony. He thinks it's time to change that too, though he admitted that a bill he introduced last session to make marijuana possession a felony only after the fourth arrest, so that it “mirrored” the state's felony DWI law, was the “baddest-beat bill of the session.”

Pritchard mentioned that his brother-in-law was an addict who eventually killed himself. Partly because of that, Pritchard is adamant that the jail and prison crisis stems in large part from the folly of trying to address mental health issues with incarceration. He also believes the state may some day be held liable for that decision.

Recalling the battle the state lost in 2002 when the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled the state's system of funding for education unconstitutional, Pritchard asks a rhetorical question. “We think we took a hickey on the Lakeview case?” With regard to a potential case about imprisoning the mentally ill, he answers, “I assure you I could win that one, and I have never taken a course in law.”

In the present, however, Pritchard has been pushing hard to reduce the flow into prisons by expanding use of special courts for drug offenders, the mentally ill, for juveniles and even for veterans.

“Those courts aren't easy,” he says. “Some people say, ‘Let me out. I'd rather go to prison.' But the ones that stay in really get help, and at a fraction of what it costs to put them in prison.”

Special courts offer counseling and closely monitor an offender while he or she continues to live at home, hold a job, and pay taxes. Pritchard estimates that it costs roughly 10 times as much to hold a prisoner for a year in the ADC as it does for the same amount of time in drug court. Moreover, drug court sentences can be shorter, and fewer drug court graduates re-offend.

Part of the reason for the courts' success is that many postpone final sentencing until an offender has either failed or succeeded in the program. “So the judges have a huge carrot and a huge stick they can use,” Pritchard says. “The carrot is that, if they complete the program, they don't get that felony conviction. And the stick is that, if they drop out, they're sent straight to prison.”

Noting, with clear regret, that Beebe had not approved a relatively modest request for $5 million to expand the state's drug court system, Pritchard insisted the approach was essential. “I'm telling you, this is the answer,” he told the group — which did not seem to be finding many others.


Looming balloon

Whatever is done in the short term, Arkansans will still face the harsh reality of providing for a prison population that is growing increasingly geriatric. As for everyone in the free world, that means increased medical expenses.

Of the almost 16,000 people in the ADC right now, 1,799 have been sentenced to life — and in Arkansas, every life sentence is, effectively, life without parole. Arkansas is one of only 10 states that require any inmate sentenced to life to serve life, unless his sentence is commuted by the governor.

The state is bound to care for all these inmates until they die in prison. That could be a long time, with projected steep increases in cost. Even in the improbable event that costs could be held to what they are today, every life sentence handed down can be predicted to cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

Rebound poses a similar problem. Too many inmates end up serving what almost amount to life sentences, though they do it in increments. Four of every 10 inmates released from prison return within three years. Prison officials admit that that's largely because “the people coming out have no support, and so they come back to us.”

Finding solutions to these problems, as Gov. Beebe has requested, is going to require a wholesale re-examination of how Arkansas copes with a broad spectrum of issues, from troubled families on one end to support for persons leaving prison on the other. As Mary Parker, a member of the Board of Corrections, put it: “Hard decisions are going to have to be made. There are so many social problems out there that the prison system is called on to solve.”

The meeting did produce two decisions. One was that more meetings were imperative. The other: that next time, judges will be included.



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