The Legislative Council endorsed a plan for two southeast Arkansas counties to contract with a private company to build and operate a 600-bed prison.

Spokesmen have said that the company intends to begin construction this year, for between $15 million and $18 million. The facility will hold 500 state inmates and the remaining space will house offenders from Bradley and Drew Counties who have been arrested and are awaiting trial.

The two counties have an agreement with LaSalle Corrections of Ruston, La., to build the prison and operate it.

The Legislative Council, a committee of legislators that oversees state government operations in the interim between sessions, signed off on the agreement during its December meeting. The contract is for close to $8.2 million a year, between the state Department of Correction and Bradley and Drew Counties. It is for 20 years, for a total cost to the state of $163 million.

The state will pay about $44 a day per inmate, which is less than the cost of securely housing inmates in state prison units. Bradley and Drew Counties will pay less because they will not provide as many services to county inmates, such as drug rehabilitation and job training to prepare inmates for release into the free world.

Arkansas had two private prisons, for about three-and-a-half years in the late 1990s. Wackenhut Corrections Corporation operated two units near Newport, the Grimes Unit and the McPherson Unit.

In 2001 the state Correction Department took over the two units, after Wackenhut decided against renewing its contract. The Grimes Unit housed youthful male offenders and the McPherson Unit housed females. Both units had 600 beds and both opened in 1998.

Other reports reviewed by the Legislative Council provide a glimpse into the everyday workings of state government. For example, the Department of Finance and Administration has a division of Child Support Enforcement. It is authorized under state law to suspend the licenses of parents who fail to comply with court orders to pay child support.

In the first six months of 2019, the division suspended 4,159 drivers’ licenses and 360 vehicle tags. It also suspended 1,033 hunting and fishing licenses.

Those suspensions were among 95,000 child support cases enforced by the state agency. In the first six months of the year, more than $145 million in child support was collected and passed on to custodial parents.

The Forestry Division is within the state Agriculture Department. It’s directed by the state forester, who sends regular reports to the Legislative Council. In November, the division helped rural fire departments suppress 52 wildfires that burned 668 acres.

That was significantly below the average number of November wildfires reported in the past decade. Over the past 10 years, the average for November has been 94 fires burning 1,585 acres.

The division administers federal grants to about 1,000 rural fire departments, and helps train and equip their members.

The division also works with landowners to develop new strains of timber. For the first five months of the fiscal year, Forestry sold 885,000 pine seedlings and 6.9 million hardwood seedlings.

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