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Youth-lockup buy key to prison plan

Nonviolent-offenders site envisioned by Stephen Simpson | July 19, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections wants to expand its program for some lower-level parole and probation violators by purchasing a vacant juvenile detention facility in Independence County.

The state Board of Corrections approved Thursday afternoon a request from Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Corrections Solomon Graves to acquire the vacant White River Juvenile Detention Facility in Batesville.

Cindy Murphy, a Corrections Department spokeswoman, said the department's Division of Community Corrections would use the facility to expand its Supervision Sanction Program for parolees and probationers.

The residential program aims to divert nonviolent offenders who violate "technical" terms of their parole or probation -- like failing a drug test, missing a court date or failing to check-in with parole officer -- away from prisons and jails.

The program is part of the state's recent efforts to reduce recidivism and prison crowding, problems exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

"Prior to the covid-19 pandemic, the division had over 400 offenders awaiting a sanction bed within the program model in place at that time," Murphy said. "The goal of this facility will be to provide interventions and services, which will hopefully interrupt the behavior of offenders before they violate the terms of their supervision."

In its current state, Graves said the facility, at 105 County Yard Road in Batesville, can house up to 130 offenders, but that number can increase to 150 with renovations.

It would be just the state's second supervision sanction center. The other is the 300-bed Omega Supervision Sanction Center in Malvern.

"It will allow us to house offenders in single, man cells, and it allows us to have a higher security level than our infrastructure supports at Omega," Graves said.

Murphy said the facility will offer offenders structure, supervision, drug and alcohol education, career technical education, employment counseling, socialization and life-skills programs, as well as other evidence- based services. She said the facility would pursue a national accreditation by the American Correctional Association in addition to state licensure as a substance abuse treatment facility.

Felons and those convicted of violent misdemeanors are not eligible for the Supervision Sanction Program.

Delinquent parolees and probationers progress through the program in phases. The period of confinement can be reduced for good behavior and early completion of the phases, but it can't be reduced by more than 50% of the time ordered to be served, according to state regulations.

Jerry Bradshaw, director of the Division of Community Correction, said he fully supported the move to purchase the facility in Batesville.

"We will be housing 90-day revocations there," he said. "A lot of times we have a lot of problems housing them on the county level."

Johnson County Sheriff Jimmy Stephens said in an interview Friday that crowding is always an issue for county jails.

"We will certainly welcome any relief we can get, especially during this time of covid," he said. "Right now Johnson County is bursting at the seams."

Poinsett County Sheriff Kevin Molder in an interview said a jail can run out of room for certain inmates before reaching capacity.

"For example my facility holds 136 people," he said. "To have all 136 beds filled up it has to be the perfect amount of male and female beds being filled. We can't hold male or female together, and we can't hold felons and misdemeanors together. So when we are full on one side, we have to explore other options."

Stephens said covid-19 has increased this problem because of quarantine periods.

"We have to have so many beds set aside for those who were brought to us because we can't just put them in the general population," he said. "This means we have to isolate them in a cell block so we have a two-bed cell but only one person can be in it. Once they leave isolation we have to disinfect the room. You can see how this creates a bed issue."

Graves will be able to enter into negotiations with Independence County's County Judge Robert Griffin to purchase the facility.

The Independence County Urban Property Record Card for 2021 calculates the total price of the property, including the building, at $2,175,900, according to documents from the Corrections Department.

Graves received the authority to pay the full amount, but he said he would make an initial offer to the county of $1.75 million for the property. This purchase price would include the county's agreement to clear the lot of remaining timber as well as the granting of an easement on the side of the property.

The acquisition cost for the property doesn't include the projected costs for renovating the building or the new construction projects for additional housing, office space, sallyport, kitchen and laundry services.

"The initial estimates for the cost of renovations and new construction are approximately $5.4 million," Grave said during the board of corrections meeting. "This project will be funded out of Prison Construction Trust Funds, which has a current uncommitted balance of approximately $12 million."

Previously a youth lockup, the White River Regional Juvenile Detention Center stopped incarcerating kids in 2019.

In 2017, two former White River Regional supervisors confessed in federal court to assaulting and needlessly punishing detained youths and conspiring with other workers to cover up their abuses by falsifying use-of-force documents.

A 2018 facility report showed that serious incidents involving youths at the Batesville facility -- including assaults, verbal threats and escape attempts -- had decreased significantly. In 2012, the county reported 1,283 serious incidents, but it documented only 73 serious incidents in 2018.

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