Full Arkansas prisons lead to backlog in jails statewide

HARRISON, Ark. -- John Schneider is finishing up his last class to get his bachelor's degree.

"The assignment is a creative non-fiction assignment, and for it I've just been writing about my personal journey, my childhood, growing up," Schneider said.

He hopes to eventually move back to where that all took place: Rogers, Ark., once he gets out on parole.

"When I was 16, I was part of an attempted robbery, and they charged me as an adult. Gave me 15 years," Schneider said.

He's been in the prison system for nine. But for the past few months, Schneider has put in time at Twin Lakes Recovery in Flippin, a place the Arkansas Department of Correction hopes can clear up more space in the correctional system.

That system is crowded, which creates a chain reaction.

Because prisons are so full at the state level, it leads to a backlog of inmates in the jails at the county level.

“Portable beds that go on the floor. And sometimes they do have to sleep on those until we get some people moved to the state prison or bonded out," said Boone County Sheriff Mike Moore.

The Boone County jail has 103 beds, but 85 inmates or more means it's overcrowded when you account for separating by offense and gender.

Data shows from 2013 to 2017 the jail was overcrowded more than half the days of the year. And in 2018, almost every day.

There are similar issues in Baxter County.

"Drugs or drug-related crimes is, in my opinion, what's caused this huge uptick in jail overcrowding and prison overcrowding," said Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery.

Baxter County had 20-50 inmates more than its limit every day in October.

Boone County leaders recently approved adding 45 beds to the jail because of the overcrowding problem. The Baxter County jail in November opened up its expansion of about 60 beds.

We combed through data from the past 10 years to see how many inmates who should be in state prisons were taking up space in jails statewide.

The numbers each year averaged from 500 to as high as 2,400.

Last year averaged 1,600.

Then, because the jails are overcrowded, people who should be in jail are on the streets.

"There's still over 2,000 valid warrants we have right now," Moore said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he understands the problem. And he's trying to address it, including re-entry programs like the one at Twin Lakes in Flippin.

"We can help those coming out of prison, so they do not go back in. And that's an investment I think the public does appreciate and think it's worthwhile," Hutchinson said.

Arkansas just opened seven re-entry centers in counties across the state three years ago.

"Arkansas like so many states realized they had done a very good job of locking people up. Very good at that. But getting them ready to go back home, well they stumbled a little bit. Fallen down some," said Dina Tyler, the communications director for the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Prisoners who are within 18 months of their parole date are eligible for the re-entry programs. The program is for six months. The idea is to give inmates the tools they need to succeed before they are released into society: like a job, driver's license and a place to live, so they don't end up right back behind bars.

"And instead of just being turned loose from the Department of Corrections with just a $150 gate check, it lets me come here, and have a job, go to work, make a little bit of money, get my drivers' license, social security card, get all my affairs in order and kind of get out with a leg up," Schneider said.

Inmates have to follow the program and take drug tests.

If they fail the program, Tyler said they are sent back to state prison.

The Baxter County sheriff believes re-entry programs are a good idea for some.

"If it's someone's first or second offense, they've got a drug problem, maybe they need a driver's license or education or GED, we need to do everything we can to help them," Montgomery said. "And I think we need to put more resources into that."

But many people who come in and out of his jail cells aren’t there for a first or even second time.

Montgomery said the Department of Correction is selecting inmates that are more likely to re-offend and putting them in re-entry centers nearby.

"So now we are importing convicted felons who are going to continue to break the law over and over again. They're putting them back in our county," Montgomery said.

Tyler said there are inmates that do need to stay behind bars.

But she stands behind the programs as a step in the right direction.

"Just take somebody and they committed a crime, and you lock them up and you don't do anything with them, what have you done? Well for one thing, you've made them very very mad," Tyler said. "So you've got to do something productive with them to show them a better way and to show them that they can do it."

Twin Lakes Recovery has seen some people who go right back to prison cells. We found of the 72 graduates on a list provided by the DOC, at least six, or about eight percent, re-offended and are currently back in Arkansas state prison. And the majority were convicted on drug or drug-related charges.

The sheriffs we spoke with believe there needs to be more severe consequences for people who commit crimes over and over again, instead of only serving part of their sentence in prison and getting out again.

"This is a standard our country used to live by. And more and more often this is not the standard we live by anymore," Moore said. "I don't think prison is feared as much as it used to be."

But for Schneider, he said the re-entry programs are giving inmates that second chance they need.

He plans to be a paralegal in Rogers in the next couple of months, after he finishes the program at Twin Lakes.

"It's been a long time coming," Schneider said. "It's a good feeling. It's nice to be able to pay taxes and be able to do all those things people normally don't want to do, but when you don't have the opportunity, it's something you wish you could."

The Arkansas Department of Correction does not have recidivism rates for inmates who graduate re-entry programs yet.

The governor said he also wants to have regional jail facilities, and the Baxter County Sheriff believes that idea is a good one. Hutchinson has also said prisons do need to be expanded to some extent.