High winds battered many parts of Northeast Arkansas on Tuesday (March 6), but it wasn’t enough to stop Gov. Asa Hutchinson from attending the grand opening of the Lawrence County Detention Center in Walnut Ridge. The governor was a few minutes late, but his aircraft was able to land at the Walnut Ridge Airport despite weather conditions.
“I’m a wind-blown governor,” Hutchinson said to a chorus of laughter by those in attendance.
The $8.5 million project doubled the county’s inmate capacity to 100 beds. It had been a dream in the county for many years, Lawrence County Judge John Thomison said. High costs and other obstacles stopped several other attempts, but voters in the county decided about three years ago something had to be done, he said.
For many years the county’s jail suffered from chronic overcrowding and inadequate facilities. The jail was built in the 1960s and was meant to house up to 42 inmates. An explosion of drug-related arrests, especially prescription drug and methamphetamine, led to constant overcrowding. There were many weekends when the inmate roster pushed 70 inmates, almost double its legal capacity.
When Arkansas Jail Standards examined the jail in 2014, the chronic overcrowding was noted, but other problems were discovered. The kitchen area was too small, the jail cells needed to be replaced, the first-aid facilities were obsolete, and the inmates didn’t have an exercise area, according to the report.
AJS threatened to close the jail and it would cost at least $600,000 per year to house the county’s prisoners in other jails, according to official estimates at the time. Several options were explored, including constructing a jail at the former Black Rock school campus after the school was closed because of declining student rosters.
Ultimately, then County Judge Dale Freeman and the Quorum Court opted to build a new jail on the land in Walnut Ridge near the Lawrence County Courthouse. Voters approved a 3/8-cent sales tax increase in November 2015 to pay for construction of the jail. It has a sunset clause set to expire in 22 years. Voters also approved a 1/8-cent sales tax increase to pay for maintenance of the facility. It’s a permanent hike. The sales tax increases mean most of the county has a 10-cent on every dollar sales tax rate. It took about 18-months to complete the jail.
The building and property will allow the county to expand the jail if needed. Jail overcrowding is a constant problem in Northeast Arkansas and once the jail is constructed the county may be able to house other counties’ prisoners. In return, the county would be financially compensated, Thomison said.
Jail issues are common in many counties across the state, and Lawrence County was able to solve this problem without state funds, Hutchinson said. Inmates who enter this facility will have to serve their sentence, but Hutchinson said he hopes that many, if not all, learn their lesson and become productive citizens.
“I’m here as the governor to salute you,” he said to the crowd.