From the historic hallways of the most beautiful state Capitol in our nation, this is Senator Keith Ingram.
In the next six months to a year, the legislature must decide whether or not Arkansas needs to build an additional maximum security prison, to house serious offenders.
It’s a complex process.
On the one hand, county sheriffs are pressing for additional maximum security space.
That’s because they have to house state inmates in county jails whenever there is a lack of available space in state prison units.
Just a handful of violent inmates can make things difficult and dangerous in a county jail.
Most local jails were built to hold drunk drivers and misdemeanor violators who can’t make bail.
In a perfect world, serious offenders are transferred to a state prison unit immediately after they are convicted.
However, in March there was an average of about 1,500 inmates backed up in Arkansas county jails because there was no space for them in a state prison unit.
In total, there are more than 82,000 people under the jurisdiction of the Correction Department, either behind bars, on parole, probation or in a reentry program.
Parole officers have an average workload of 89 cases for each officer. In the recent fiscal session we increased their salaries, and as a result the state filled 278 vacant positions for parole officers.
Prison officials are working to lower the state’s 46.1 percent recidivism rate, which they called unacceptably high during a recent meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
What that means is that of all the inmates who got out of prison in 2017, about 46 percent were back behind bars within three years.
Unemployment and under-employment were two major reasons. Besides lacking job skills and an adequate education, many inmates also lack social skills and basic knowledge about hygiene.
That’s why the state Correction Department has numerous reentry programs, to prepare inmates for life outside prison.
Inmates can learn modern job skills at vocational schools inside the prison walls.
Inmates with children learn about parenting, so they won’t be so frustrated when they are with their kids. Some inmates are taught about relationships with their families, and other people who can serve as a support group.
Drug and alcohol abuse treatment is common at prison units and in halfway houses, because staying sober is essential for former inmates trying to make a new life.
Prison officials work with faith-based groups to provide support for inmates out on parole.
Public safety requires more than simply building more prisons.
About 90 percent of the inmates in prison will eventually be released, either because they have served their sentence or because they become eligible for parole.
That’s why the governor issued a proclamation declaring that the week of April 26 is Reentry Awareness Week. Because if prisons are nothing more than a revolving door, the public is at a greater risk of becoming victims of a crime.
From the Capitol, it is always my great honor and sincere privilege to serve you as your state Senator. This is Keith Ingram.