Dealing with the problem of prison overcrowding and a backlog of inmates in county jails brought members of the Senate and House Committees of State Agencies and Governmental Affairs together Monday in Pine Bluff to discuss possible solutions.

Dealing with the problem of prison overcrowding and a backlog of inmates in county jails brought members of the Senate and House Committees of State Agencies and Governmental Affairs together Monday in Pine Bluff to discuss possible solutions.


The joint committee meeting was held at the Arkansas Correctional School near the Pine Bluff Unit and one of the possible solutions discussed was to transfer prisoners to a privately run facility in Louisiana.


Representatives of LaSalle Corrections — which operates jails in Louisiana, Texas and Georgia — has offered to house up to 500 Arkansas prisoners at a cost of $28.50 per day, which would include in-house medical treatment. The company would also transport prisoners back and forth from Arkansas to Louisiana twice a week.


Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), chairman of the Senate Committee, said preference could be given to inmates from south Arkansas and the proposal would "offer an immediate solution."


Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) asked Billy McConnell, the managing director of LaSalle Corrections, if the company was currently accepting inmates from other states at their facilities.


McConnell said Harris County, Texas, had previously sent a number of prisoners to a unit in Louisiana to take care of their overflow, with some inmates being kept in Louisiana for six to eight months, many while awaiting trial in Texas. He said Harris County was able to resolve its overcrowding problems and no longer sends inmates to Louisiana.


Asked by Flowers if defense attorneys in Texas whose clients were being held in Louisiana objected, McConnell said the facility offered video conferencing.


"We don’t intend to send any pretrial prisoners," Williams said. "It may very well be the 500 that are currently being held at Wrightsville. We’re in trouble."


Rep. Jim, Nickles (D-Sherwood) said he was opposed to the idea, questioning how constitutional protections currently afforded prisoners in state custody would apply in a privately run facility.


Williams invited members of the committee to visit the Louisiana facility unannounced and talk to officials there.


He said it is currently costing $58 per day to house inmates at Wrightsville, while LaSalle is offering to house inmates at $28.50 per day as well as pay in-house medical bills.


"The whole purpose of this meeting is to address overcrowding," Rep. Andrea Lea (R-Pope County) said. "There are many answers and no decisions are going to be made here. There’s a lot of stuff going on, and this is not a trail that goes in just one direction."


Ronnie Baldwin, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association, told the committee that there are currently 2,373 state inmates backed up in county jails across the state.


He said the association sent out a survey asking if state jails would be willing to accept more state prisoners if they received $40 to $45 per day, the same range as federal authorities pay.


Baldwin said there were 31 replies, with 19 of them saying they would house more state prisoners if the pay was better. The state currently pays $28 per day per prisoner.


"Seven more said they were already full of state inmates," Baldwin said. "I think there would be a number of beds out there if the funds were available and it would be cost saving to the Department of Corrections"


Asked by Flowers why the counties don’t contract with LaSalle with an average cost of $28.50 per day compared to $45-per-day costs in county jails, Baldwin said state law prohibits that.


"Most sheriff’s don’t want to be in the jail business," Williams said.