Pine Bluff and Jefferson County will not be among the areas considered by the Arkansas Department of Correction for a new prison, but it wasn’t because local economic development leaders didn’t try.

Pine Bluff and Jefferson County will not be among the areas considered by the Arkansas Department of Correction for a new prison, but it wasn’t because local economic development leaders didn’t try.


During a meeting in mid-October of the Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County, the group that administers the three-eights cent sales tax devoted to economic development, Bryan Barnhouse, who works for the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, said Alliance staff looked at their available properties and had nothing that fit the minimum property requirements the DOC had established. DOC were looking for 400 acres that were flat and square.


Barnhouse expanded on the search in a column in the weekly newsletter of the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce and also with a reporter last week.


During the meeting of the Economic Development Corp., also known as the tax board, former White Hall Mayor James "Jitters" Morgan mentioned the Bioplex in the northern part of the county but Barnhouse said that property is isolated from characteristics specified by the request for proposals.


Those characteristics included community and major medical resources, utilities, population centers and a higher education institution.


Barnhouse said the Alliance also looked at farm land across Arkansas River but the properties available were "irregularly shaped, unknown to be clear of environmental concerns and isolated from the desired resources and utilities.


"At the end of the day, there were no suitable properties or collection of properties that met even the basic criteria for the project," he said.


The DOC’s search for a prison site is occurring statewide, but funding from the Arkansas Legislature is still uncertain at this point. The Legislature is also considering other options, such as shipping prisoners out of state. The discussion has been prompted by prison overcrowding and overflows into county jails across the state.


According to a legal notice that was sent to The Commercial by the DOC, the proposed new prison would initially house 1,000 maximum security inmates and would be constructed so that it could be expanded to 2,000 beds. Construction is expected to cost $100 million.


Currently, the Department of Correction operates facilities at Tucker and the Pine Bluff Unit and has announced plans to reopen the former Diagnostic Unit in Pine Bluff within the next two years. Arkansas Community Correction also maintains a facility in Pine Bluff.


The legal notice said the new prison will initially generate 250 jobs with an average salary of $12.75 per hour with an average annual budget of about $19 million. After expansion, there will be about 500 jobs with an annual budget of about $38 million.