Jul 21, 2022 - News

Media question spurs deep dive into corrections transparency

Illustration of question mark on folder pattern.
Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

A short response on Dec. 28, 2021, to a Freedom of Information Act request about inmate drug overdoses created more questions than it answered.

What happened: "We do not maintain records responsive to your request," read the email from the public information officer at the Arkansas Department of Corrections in response to an inquiry aimed at drilling down on opioid- or fentanyl-related deaths in state prisons.

  • The reaction begged the question: Why not? And it led to a deeper look into what types of information Arkansas Division of Corrections (ADC) — which falls under the Department of Corrections — reports publicly.

Why it matters: On any given day, ADC is responsible for more than 17,000 inmates and 4,500 staff members. So a lack of transparency about deaths should concern any Arkansan.

What they aren't saying: Dexter Payne, the division's director, declined multiple requests for interviews through his public information officer, Cindy Murphy.

  • A final appeal Tuesday to Arkansas Department of Corrections secretary Solomon Graves yielded no results.

The other side: ADC gathers and publishes an abundance of information, including annual and monthly reports.

Yes, but: The reports use average inmate populations, rather than raw numbers, tend to lead with positives about training programs and bury less-flattering details in numbers-heavy charts with little context.

State of play: A phone conversation with Murphy on July 15 painted a picture of a department subject to high turnover, inefficient with its data and unwilling to take extra steps in the interest of informing the public.

  • She told Axios data were in different silos throughout the department, that changes in staffing created knowledge gaps, and that "the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act does not require the [Department of Corrections] to create a document or spreadsheet in response to a request for information."
Incarcerated population overloaded
Data: Arkansas Department of Corrections; Chart: Skye Witley/Axios

State prisons frequently have more inmates than capacity, data analyzed by Axios shows.

Driving the news: About 1,100 new beds are planned for the Division of Corrections, but it may be years before they're available for inmates.

  • In March, lawmakers included $75 million to expand the North Central Unit at Calico Rock by nearly 500 beds in the Department of Corrections' appropriations bill.
  • The department plans to spend more than $4 million to convert a former juvenile detention center to a parole and probation facility for lower-level offenders, adding 150 beds.
  • A planned $8 million, 500-bed facility to be run by a private contractor in southeast Arkansas was supposed to open at the beginning of 2022, but has yet to break ground.

The big picture: State prisons have frequently been overcrowded by more than 500 inmates for at least the past five years, and it appears the problem will get worse before it gets better. Due in part to the state's growth, the prison population is projected to increase 1.4% per year, hitting 19,160 by 2031.

  • By one measure, Arkansas' incarceration rate is the fifth highest in the world, with 942 per 100,000 people locked up.
  • Inmates are staying longer, too. The average time served in fiscal year 2012 was just shy of four years. In 2021 it was a little over five years.

By the numbers: There were 17,229 incarcerated people in Arkansas' state prisons at the beginning of June.

  • The state's maximum capacity for fiscal 2021, which ended June 30 was 15,454.
  • A total of 757 contracted beds were available at the beginning of fiscal year 2021, but an arrangement with Bowie County, Texas, ended in October 2020, reducing overflow beds to about 400.

Even with reduced total incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic, the raw number of incarcerated people at the end of each month has been greater than the capacity numbers provided to Axios.

The other side: ADC's 2021 annual report breaks down each prison unit's capacity, plotted against its population. The department uses annual average numbers that tend to smooth out snapshot spikes in population. The graph illustrates a system that's near, but not over, capacity.

  • Twice in 2021 ADC used the Emergency Power Act to parole about 300 inmates and alleviate overcrowding.

The intrigue: ADC's public information officer ignored multiple questions from Axios seeking additional context about overcrowding.

The bottom line: The numbers don't reflect overcrowding in county jails where incarcerated people await transfer to a state facility.

  • In February, Gov. Asa Hutchinson displayed a graph showing over 2,200 incarcerated people were backed up in the county system.

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