State to add more state prison beds despite officials’ fears about understaffing

LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' administration has taken action to reduce overcrowding at state prisons by adding hundreds of new beds, going over the heads of corrections officials who had said staffing shortages would make it unsafe to add so many new prisoners all at once.

The extra space is needed, according to Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin, because of an expected increase in the inmate population stemming from the Protect Arkansas Act, which will require offenders to serve most, if not all, of their sentences. Beginning Jan. 1, those convicted of 18 of the most violent felonies in the state code, such as murder, will have to serve 100% of their sentences.

In an email Friday to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sanders spokesperson Alexa Henning said the decision to add the prison beds came after the state's Board of Corrections agreed to add 124 beds at the Barbara Ester Unit in Pine Bluff -- but rejected adding 368 more beds at two other prisons that had been requested by Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri.

Nearly 1,900 inmates are being housed in county jails across the state due to a lack of capacity in state lockups, according to the Department of Corrections.

"It's unfortunate the Board of Corrections did not listen to Secretary Profiri about the urgency of this matter and continues to play politics with the safety and security of Arkansans," Henning said. "The Secretary of Corrections has the authority to open certain bed space, and he will be doing so."

Profiri on Nov. 6 asked the board to open 622 beds at state prisons, but the board only approved 130. Sixty of those beds would be at the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern and 70 at the North Central Unit in Calico Rock. During Friday's meeting, Profiri asked the board to approve adding the 492 beds to the Ester Unit, the McPherson Unit located in Newport, and the Maximum Security Unit in Jefferson County.

Instead, the board agreed only to add beds at the Ester Unit.

Board members said Friday they have been reluctant to add the requested beds all at the same time because of the high number of staffing vacancies at the facilities, and concerns about overcrowding and safety for staff and inmates.

"The safety of the people of Arkansas is our number one priority," Board Chairman Benny Magness said during Friday's meeting. "Second is the safety of staff, and third is the safety of inmates. The public isn't as conscious of those last two, but we need to be."

Profiri disagreed, saying, "We have the staffing now."

That drew a strong response from Magness and board member Whitney Gass, both of whom asked Profiri why he hadn't previously given them that assurance. Profiri said the board never asked.

Henning said the new beds at McPherson would be added after construction work is done. She did not indicate when the new beds would be added to the Maximum Security Unit.

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