The state Board of Correction has voted to pursue an agreement with Bradley and Drew Counties in southeast Arkansas to set up a private prison.
It would house 500 male inmates, as well as offenders from local county jails.
The counties have been working with LaSalle Corrections of Ruston, La., a private company that also operates the Bowie County Correctional Center in Texarkana, Texas.
Arkansas pays to house state inmates at the Bowie facility, because of overcrowding in Arkansas prison units.
If the state and the two counties finalize an agreement with LaSalle, it would mark the second time that Arkansas sentenced inmates to private prisons. For about three-and-a-half years in the late 1990s, a private firm called 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.
The contract approved by the Correction Board is between the state Department of Corrections and Bradley and Drew Counties, and it would be for 20 years.
The two counties would work out an agreement with LaSalle, and the agreement must allow state Correction officials to inspect the private facility at any time. After a reasonable notice, state inspectors could access areas off limits to inmates.
The contract between the counties and LaSalle shall provide for GED programs and other educational programs for inmates.
The cost of operating a prison include the cost of vo-tech classes, GED programs, rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addiction and basic health care. The state is looking into the contract with LaSalle because of the potential to save tax dollars. Supporters of private prisons include legislators in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The question will be how inmates in the private facility are prepared for life outside prison. Critics of private prisons, including members of the legislature, have expressed concerns that private companies make profits by scrimping on staff and on rehabilitation programs.
The contract with LaSalle shall prohibit any person or company from profiting from the labor of inmates.
There are still many steps to take before Arkansas opens another private prison facility. Attorneys for all the parties must review the contracts. Reimbursement rates that the state would pay have to be determined, and the facility must be built. According to news reports, LaSalle would build the prison at its own expense.
The first quarter of the fiscal year shows solid growth in the Arkansas economy. Net available revenue was up 2.9 percent over last year. Tax rates have not gone up, so the increase is due to greater economic activity.
Individual income taxes are up 4.2 percent over the same period last year, which is an indication that more people are working and getting paid more.
Sales and use taxes, which indicate how much people are spending, were up 1.4 percent over the first quarter of last year.