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Operations at two Arkansas prison units are being suspended, resulting in the reassignment of correctional officers and relocation of inmates, the state Department of Correction said Thursday.

The suspension affects the Cummins Modular Unit in Grady, which has 300 beds for male prisoners, and the 124-bed Tucker Re-entry Center in Tucker, which houses female inmates.

Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley notified the Board of Corrections and Gov. Asa Hutchinson's office on Tuesday of a request to temporarily halt operations at the minimum-security facilities.

"Our staffing levels have reached a level that requires immediate action," Kelley said in notifying departmental employees. "We cannot ask staff to continue to work [mandatory] overtime at the current rate."

Displaced inmates from Cummins will be reassigned to other units, officials said, and prisoners at Tucker will be reassigned to the McPherson Unit in Newport and the J. Aaron Hawkins Center for Women in Wrightsville.

"With your approval yesterday, I instructed the East Arkansas, Maximum Security and Varner wardens to begin accepting inmates from the Cummins Unit to reduce their population by 150-250 inmates," Kelly wrote in a letter to Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness.

Correctional officers from the Cummins Modular Unit and Tucker Re-entry Center will be reassigned to facilities where "high vacancy rates" are present, according to the agency.

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Twenty-seven officer positions at the Cummins Modular Unit will be transferred to the adjacent Varner Unit in Grady, where about 97 vacancies are present, according to Kelley's letter.

Tucker Re-entry Center's 25 positions will move to the Maximum Security or Tucker units, each of which has 57 vacancies.

Kelley said as of Tuesday that the Correction Department had 560 vacancies among its 2,484 officer positions. The vacancies are most pronounced at several maximum-security units, including Varner, which houses the state's death row.

In January, the Joint Budget Committee voted to adopt a proposed spending plan that includes an increase of $1.9 million in overtime pay for officers manning extra shifts to keep the prisons staffed.

A 2017 report by New York City research nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice found that Arkansas was one of 15 states between 2010 and 2015 where spending on prisons had increased as more people were being locked up.

Nearly $400 million was spent on Arkansas prisons in fiscal 2017, and the state is budgeted to spend $414.7 million this fiscal year.

A $430.4 million appropriation was recommended for prisons for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The report also concluded that prison costs were not solely a matter of spending more money on more inmates.

While the number of prisoners in state and federal prisons has dropped in recent years -- a result of diverting some low-level and nonviolent offenders from prison -- Southern states continue to lead in incarceration rates.

Arkansas is No. 6, with 591 people locked up per 100,000 residents, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

Last year, legislation was passed in Arkansas with the aim of sending more parole and probation violators to treatment-based lockups instead of prison.

Information in this article was contributed by John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

State Desk on 03/02/2018

Print Headline: State shuts 2 prisons; 52 guards reassigned

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