Revisiting Private Prisons in Arkansas

By: Connor Thompson

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

Plans are moving forward for Arkansas to open the first private prison in the state since 2001. The state’s previous experiment with private lockups lasted only four years, and it resulted in a 2003 Department of Justice inquiry concluding that conditions at the formerly private facilities were unconstitutional. It is worth asking why Arkansas is reinstating private prisons now, given the abuses at these facilities nationwide and the inherent tension between cutting costs and providing adequate care to prisoners under law. 

Bradley and Drew counties are in the late stages of approving a contract with LaSalle Corrections, based in Ruston, Louisiana, to operate a 600-bed facility, the location of which has yet to be determined. Under contracts currently under review, this proposed facility would reserve 500 beds for prisoners from the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC), the state prison system, and 100-150 beds for detainees from the counties. The facility is being described as a “regional jail,” despite the fact that the majority of inmates are to be state prisoners. The agreement includes a 20-year contract between ADC and Bradley and Drew counties, and a separate contract between Bradley and Drew counties and LaSalle Corrections. 

The facility’s designation as a regional jail run by the counties, instead of a prison run by the state, is a justification for the state to cut costs by adhering to lower standards of training and lower staff salaries than the ADC rate. As the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports, “[t]he guards at the regional jail will get a week’s worth of training, which is the state standard for local jails. Guards at state prisons are required to undergo six weeks of training. Id. Officers at the regional jail also will earn a lower starting salary than officers at state prisons.” Id. The largest private prison companies, such as LaSalle, CoreCivic, and Geo Group, profit from keeping costs below the appropriation they are paid by the state per inmate, which is set lower than the amount the state pays per inmate in its public prisons. The largest cost is labor, particularly paying competitive wages and maintaining sufficient staffing. Medical care is another major expense.

Currently, ADC contracts with LaSalle to hold about 325 prisoners across the state line at the Bowie County Correctional Center in Texarkana, Texas. As the Texarkana Gazette reports, the local county commissioners are seeking bids for new management of Bowie County Correctional and its LaSalle-run neighbor, Bi-State Jail. Id. Bi-State oversaw four in-custody deaths since 2015, and Bowie County has been determined to be non-compliant with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards due to inadequate staffing and medical care. Id. Arkansas plans to move the prisoners currently held at Bowie to the new facility in Bradley or Drew. Id.

Arkansas’s last term of prison privatization lasted from 1998-2001, when the Wackenhut Corrections Corporationsince rebranded as the Geo Groupoperated the McPherson women’s prison and Grimes Unit, holding youthful offenders, both in Newport. Id. Shortly after the state took over operations of McPherson and Grimes, the United States Department of Justice released a report in 2003, concluding that conditions at the prisons were unconstitutional due to deliberate indifference to serious medical needs, lack of protection from physical and sexual harm, and unsafe and unsanitary conditions. A 2008 proposal to privatize the Arkansas prison system by then-State Representative Johnny Hoyt was opposed by ADC through its spokesperson, who cited the experience with Wackenhut at McPherson and Grimes as a reason why the ADC was reluctant to revisit private operators. 

The state owes an equal standard of care to its prisoners when it is contracting out to private companies, as it does to all other inmates in its custody. The Supreme Court of the United States held that “[c]ontracting out prison medical care does not relieve the State of its constitutional duty to provide adequate medical treatment to those in its custody, and it does not deprive the State’s prisoners of the means to vindicate their Eighth Amendment rights.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 56 (1988). 

Arkansas’s brief but disastrous history with prison privatization and Texas’s finding that the LaSalle-run jails in Texarkana are noncompliant with that state’s standards should be cause for concern that the state is setting itself up to repeat the mistakes of the past. 

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