Tuesday, December 02, 2014

TOP STORY >> Prison reform pushed

Leader editor-in-chief

The Department of Correction wants $100 million for a new prison, but Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) thinks that’s a waste of money.

Williams, who chairs the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, says we need new ideas on reducing recidivism — 42.2 percent of parolees are back in prison within three years, although a new report says that figure is more than 55-60 percent.

He insists a new prison would cost $230 million with interest on a bond issue and $40 million a year to operate. Williams thinks Arkansas should follow Texas, which has closed three prisons despite a forecast in 2007 that it would have a 10,000 shortage of prison beds. Texas has built several transition work centers to help ease parolees back into society.

Williams, who holds the purse strings for prison funding, has got the attention of prison officials. They told a Senate committee Tuesday that they welcome Williams’ call for more re-entry work centers, where parolees get training for a fraction of the cost of prison beds.

Williams wants more low-cost training centers for parolees in converted school buildings, like the one in England in southern Lonoke County.

He thinks the old Jacksonville Elementary School along the railroad tracks would make a good transition work center, although some would say the old Jacksonville junior high schools look more like prisons and might make better halfway houses.

Williams was attending a reception Monday for the new Jacksonville School Board when the subject of prison reform came up. He says he’ll keep pushing for cheaper and more effective alternatives to prisons.

The senator is passionate about reforming prisoners. “We need to do a better job of preparing people who are coming out not to come back,” he said.

“The average time in Arkansas prisons is three years and 10 months. They’re going to be out with no training, no driver’s license, no money, no job, no place to live, and we’re hoping they’re going to succeed. We’re fooling ourselves if we keep doing that.”

Williams says inmates who are going to be paroled in January should wait six months and go to a re-entry center, such as the one at the old England Middle School, which was closed years ago and has been remodeled into a successful work center for prisoners.

Re-entry centers house between 50 to 250 people. Williams expects them to get a driver’s license and learn a trade there. He hopes those served by the centers will never return to prison again.

“We need that person to get an opportunity to succeed in life,” Williams says, sounding like an old-fashioned do-gooder. But that’s all right with him.

Prison officials say the state should build five halfway houses. Williams is glad they’re finally responding to pressure from the legislature to do better as the recidivism rate continues to rise.

He was upset back in September when he read in The Leader that murderers and armed robbers were working at Cabot Junior High North installing gym equipment.

The department has changed the rules in its work-release program — no more murderers and armed robbers allowed in our schools — but Williams says the department is way out of line when it says it won’t ease overcrowding until a new prison is built.

He says the state doesn’t have money for a new prison. “We don’t even have money for schools,” he says.

As a powerful committee chairman, Williams will help decide next year’s budget. With a Republican governor about to be sworn in, expect reduced spending on most state programs. Asa Hutchinson will look to Williams for guidance. His views on prison reform offer a glimpse into how the new administration will run the state.

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) last year introduced a bill on establishing a re-entry system in Arkansas, leading to the passage of Act 1190.

Brenda Sharp, director of the Arkansas Department of Community Correction, submitted a report to the legislature offering ways to improve the state’s parole system.

“To better assist the supervision population with transitioning to the community upon release from prison, a comprehensive and coordinated network of state agencies and community service providers must be created to ensure services are delivered through an integrated approach,” Sharp said in fancy language that Williams might translate into plain English as: The prison system is a failure. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result, we’re crazy.

The department also wants to hire more than 200 probation officers. But here’s the kicker: You ask a prosecutor like Chuck Graham in Lonoke County, he’ll tell you, sure, we must prepare parolees for life outside prisons.

But we must also find the money for a $100 million prison. “We still got to put people in prison,” Graham said. He mentioned Arron Lewis, a parolee who is accused of killing realtor Beverly Carter.

“They’re still terrorizing people,” Graham said. “Parolees are killing people. How do we keep people safe? We need to build at least one $100 million prison. We’ve got to have the capability of locking people up and balance our budget.”