LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Arkansas Department of Corrections voted Friday, September 23, to release nearly 400 parolees early due to overcrowding issues across prisons in the state.
Chairman of the Arkansas Board of Corrections, Benny Magness said the decision came after facilities reached 105% capacity just last week.
“We don’t have really much choice,” he said.
Magness said overcrowding in prisons has been an issue in Arkansas for years now. He said the growth rate was 4 or 5% in years past, but with some of the programs and initiatives Governor Asa Hutchinson has implemented with the board, the growth has been cut down to close to 2%.
“But, we are still growing,” Magness said.
This year, lawmakers also approved Governor Asa Hutchinson’s plan to fund an expansion at one of the state’s prisons.
Magness said the issue persists, however, and there is no quick fix for this issue except to release nearly 400 parolees early, over the next 90 days.
“Anytime you release anyone, they can always be problematic, if that inmate or offender doesn’t abide by the law or conditions of his parole,” Magness said. “To expand one of the prisons or build a new prison, it takes three years to get those beds open.”
Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Woods said full capacity in prisons has a ripple effect on county jails.
“We also house prisoners for the Arkansas Department of Corrections who have been sentenced but waiting on beds to open up,” he said.
In Jefferson County, Woods said the jail is at nearly 88% capacity. He said this problem has persisted ever since the start of the pandemic.
“When it’s already a hostile working environment, just because of the profession, it makes it difficult when you’ve got almost capacity.”
To free up space in his jail, Woods said the county is having to make decisions about who to take into custody.
“Our new intake is those individuals who are mainly violating or accused of violating serious felony offenses,” he said.
He added the jail is also having to prioritize misdemeanor charges, only booking those faced with domestic battery or theft charges.
The Sheriff said he hopes in the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers will consider adding another prison to the state to create space.
Meantime, Magness said the board is adding 150 beds in Batesville as part of a sanction center that can house people for 90 days.