Little Rock, Arkansas -
Prior to the start of the special session on Monday, prison reform activists voiced opposition to funding more prison beds instead of investing in rehabilitative methods.
"What we're doing in Arkansas is mass incarceration," said Leta Anthony of the Central Arkansas ReEntry Coalition. "There are incidents where prison is appropriate, but we're warehousing people and sending them through a revolving door."
In the midst of the critiques, which included the need to invest in transitional housing, mental health treatment and revising child custody laws, there was one that stood out.
"With the tragic situation with Darrell Dennis, and we are not aiming to belittle the tragedy of that event. But we don't want to see it used as an end-run to keep funneling people in this revolving door," Anthony said. "With Darrell Dennis, we went from 700 people backed up in county jails around the state to more than 2,700 in 60 days, which in some views manufactured a crisis of overcrowding."
Darrell Dennis was on parole when 18-year-old Forrest Abrams was murdered in May 2013. Dennis has pleaded not guilty to the crime. However, he was never transferred back to prison, despite multiple new charges and parole violations prior to the murder.
"We picked up people and sent them back to prisons," Anthony said. "It's a roller coaster."
"I would not say it's a manufactured crisis," said Shea Wilson, Public Information Officer for the Department of Correction. "There was an incident that happened and a response was made, and I think the appropriate action was taken at the time."
But Wilson did pull the numbers from the Department of Correction for backup inmates being held in county jails waiting to come into the prison system.
"If you look at those trends you can see where the numbers went up in a short amount of time very quickly," she said.
The data show the spike activists described as happening over six months, immediately following the parole system crackdown in response to Dennis' arrest.
The system was at what the department calls all time lows of 238 backup inmates in January 2013. That number stayed relatively steady until August 2013. The number nearly doubled over 700 and again within a month.
Those numbers tracked historic highs nearing 2,400 inmates as of July 1, 2014.
And it's putting pressure on county jails, including Pulaski County which has had to close to non-violent offenders, along with the state.
"If we continue to incarcerate people at the rate we're incarcerating people we're going to have to have additional beds," Wilson said. "As quickly as we're bringing people in they're filling those beds back up. So we're full, they're full."
The 604 beds funded with $6 million dollars from the special session will help, but it still leaves about 1,800 inmates currently on backup and more coming in.
"That will help but it's not an overall solution to the problem of overcrowding," Wilson said. "Right now we are already behind. Today we're close to 2,400 people backed up in county jails. Those are new commitments but also people sent back. We all know we can't continue to build prisons to sustain the population there will have to be a combination of efforts to help address the crisis."
According to the Department of Correction it is working to look at all of its options, including renovating the department's diagnostic unit to free up about 300 beds in the next few years. It also hopes to build a new 1,000 bed facility, which could cost anywhere from $85-$100 million.
"It will take a combination of efforts we are all very focused on reentry and other options," Wilson said. "But we still have to have bed space for the inmates we have."
The Central Arkansas ReEntry Coalition points to Act 570 as a tactic to alleviate the problem, which they say was working until the crackdown in 2013. It was a law intended to help with the growth of the prison population, according to Wilson.
"We've always known that the population was going to continue to grow," Wilson said. "But Act 570 was intended to help slow that growth. We were beginning to see a downward trend, and then the incident last summer happened, which has caused a backslide from that standpoint. It's a whole new game now."
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