State says county needs new jail

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By Quinton Bagley

Little River News

When the Little River County Jail was completed in 1976 it held less than 20 prisoners. Fast forward more than 40 years and that same jail was closed by the state in 2012, remodeled in 2013 to hold 24 prisoners and yet does not meet the standards of the Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee or the Jail Standards Committee and could be closed again if a proposed 3/8 cent tax for construction and a 1/4 cent tax for operations and maintenance is not approved by the citizens of the county during a special election on September 10.

“This is not a new issue,” Little River County Sheriff Bobby Walraven said. “This is an issue that every sheriff and judge has faced since the jail was built.”

According to a report from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration which oversees the Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee, “In 2015, the Review Committee found that Little River County had outgrown the current jail facility. In 2016, the Review Committee found, “The Sheriff’s Office’s responsibilities, workload, and operations” had “outpaced the capacity and format of the current site.” In 2016, the Review Committee requested county officials to craft an improvement plan with regard to detention operations.

“In February and October of 2017, the Review Committee convened with county officials in regard to the improvement plan. In October of 2017, it was determined that by “December 31, 2019, the Little River County Detention Center will have completed or nearly completed a physical plant expansion or like construction project. Or the Little River County Detention Center will have transitioned to a 24-Hour Detention Facility and/or similar modification as to conform to the Arkansas Criminal Detention Facility Standards.”

The report addresses many areas of concern including the facility’s inability to properly house/separate inmates based on classification.

“We can not put violent offenders in the same cell as nonviolent offenders,” Walraven said. 

The report also pointed out the jail did not have a kitchen area, a place to hold ADC inmates, a laundry room area or a medical care room/area.

“We have $80,000 in our annual budget to feed inmates,” Walraven said. “The food is prepared by the nursing home and we pay them for it whatever it is. It averages $8 per inmate a day. If we had our own kitchen area we could lower that cost to approximately $2 an inmate per day with a very sensible menu of oatmeal, toast and bacon for breakfast, bologna and turkey sandwich with a bag of chips for lunch and pinto beans and cornbread for supper every day.”

Overpopulation is a big issue for the current 24-bed facility. An inmate census from 2018 showed that Little River County had 522 male inmates throughout the year with an average daily population of 31.8 days and average length of stay of 11.6 days. Many of those inmates had to be housed in other jails. The census also indicated that throughout the entire year, there were 146 female inmates.

“We do not have the facilities to house female inmates,” Walraven said. “We have to send them to Sevier County or wherever we can find a spot for them. As far as the male inmates, they exceed our capacity so we have prisoners scattered all across southwest Arkansas in various jails. For instance, we house some of our male inmates in Sevier County. They charge us $35 a day to hold a prisoner. That doesn’t count the money spent on transportation for court dates or additional man hours to transport those inmates which falls under our responsibility.”

While the report pointed out other shortcomings, it finished by stating, “The Sheriff’s Office is doing a very good job to the extent possible within the current site.”

These issues and many others are why the Little River County Jail Committee recommended to the Quorum Court in April to call a special election to be held September 10 to allow the citizens of the county to vote on a 3/8 cent sales tax increase that would be used to build the new facility and a 1/4 sales tax for maintenance and operation. The 3/8 cent sales tax would have a sunset clause for 2045 while the 1/4 cent sales tax would remain on the books. 

The 3/8 cent tax would pay off the bond used to build the new jail according to Walraven.

“You have to build by bond,” Walraven stated. “The only way to do that is to have a dedicated stream of revenues.”

If the proposed tax increases are approved by voters, the county will have to find a suitable piece of land to buy to build the new jail.

“The land the county owned off Hwy. 32 Bypass has been sold to the Intermodal Facility,” Little River County Judge Mike Cranford said. “That particular piece of property had a lot of wetland issues that would have had to be addressed and a lot of dirt work would have had to been done to improve drainage and prevent flooding.”

Walraven stated that there would be a slight increase to the budget if the proposed increases are approved.

“Right now our budget is a little under $1.1 million a year,” Walraven said. “Of that, $200,000 goes to housing inmates in other counties. If the voters approve the increases and we are able to build the new facility we anticipate our budget being approximately $1.4 million a year.”

Currently there are no blue prints or artist rendition of what the new jail would look like.

“We are too early in the process for that right now,” Cranford said. “If the citizens of the county approve the two taxes and the bond issue then we will take that next step.”

“We would like a 70-bed facility and the ability to house female inmates,” Walraven added. “We also want a kitchen and a laundry area. These are things that we don’t have now that we have to pay for to outside parties. This is money we could save in the future.”

What would become of the current jail if a new jail is built? Walraven already has a plan for that as well.

“We would like the ability to reappropriate it,” Walraven said. “One option would be to ask the state about the ability to turn it into a juvenile holding facility. That would keep us from having to tear it down and defray some of the overhead.