August 27, 2014 Edition

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LawCo. moving forward
with application for prison

G. David Guntharp, former director of the Arkansas Department of Community Correction, speaks at the public information meeting held Aug. 19 regarding a proposed maximum-security state prison the county is looking to apply for. The Lawrence County Quorum Court voted to proceed with the application process at the end of the meeting. TD Photo ~ Megan Heyl

Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

After a unanimous vote by the eight justices present at a special meeting held August 19, Lawrence County is moving forward in the application process for a maximum-security state prison.

During the meeting, several guests spoke about the benefits a prison would bring to Lawrence County and took questions regarding residents' reservations.

Former Lawrence County resident G. David Guntharp spoke about his experiences working with the Arkansas Department of Community Correction. Throughout his 36 years working with them, Guntharp said he has watched the Arkansas Department of Correction increase in its professionalism, security and community interaction.

"I can't encourage you enough to get your application in," he said at the meeting.

Despite overwhelming support at the public meeting, many have expressed the need to have more information before bringing a prison into the county.

Fran Cavenaugh, Chamber of Commerce chair, attended the meeting and said for the county to just say no would be too rash a decision. "We have to at least take the opportunity to look at all the facts," she said.

A committee will be formed to conduct research and advise on the application process. They will work closely with County Judge Dale Freeman in researching possible effects from the prison, surveying land, acquiring funding for the land and completing the application.

The deadline to apply is Oct. 24, but Freeman said he is going to send the application in as soon as possible. A public information meeting will be held after the application is submitted to inform the public what the county has offered in its application.

Freeman said they are already working on a location near where Highway 412 and Highway 63 merge between Hoxie and Portia. Should that location not work, Freeman said there is another area north of town that could supply the 400 acres needed to house the prison.

Freeman said land is to be purchased by grant funding and donated to the state should the ADC and Arkansas Board of Corrections choose Lawrence County as the building site. Community concerns

The location of the prison is an ongoing concern for many in the county. Milton Smith, president of First National Bank headquartered in Walnut Ridge, said location is one of his concerns or questions. When choosing a location, detrimental effects to the surrounding area should be considered, he said.

Public safety is also of high concern among community members. Dr. Joe Hughes, formerly of Lawrence County, spoke on this topic during the information meeting.

Hughes has worked with the ADC for seven years and is employed at the Newport facility as a full-time doctor. He explained that in order to get to his office, he has to go through seven security gates. Should a prisoner require off-site medical attention, Hughes said they are handcuffed and shackled prior to their cell being opened, and they never know the time or date of their departure until officers arrive to escort them.

Hughes added that security is their number one priority. "I'm safer in a maximum security prison than I am walking down Main Street in Walnut Ridge at night," he said.

Should a crime be committed within the prison, ADC Public Information Officer Shea Wilson said the case would be tried in the Lawrence County Court System.

Williams Baptist College has also shown concerns regarding the prison, but will not take an official position until more is known about it. WBC President Dr. Tom Jones said that over 90 percent of the college's students come from outside the county.

"Obviously, the image of a maximum-security prison in the community could be detrimental to recruiting students," he said. "It is worth noting that WBC employs more than 100 people and has a yearly budget of over $11 million, not to mention the economic impact of more than 500 students spending their dollars in our community."

Walnut Ridge Alderman Jeff Taylor has expressed multiple concerns regarding a state prison, one of which is how the prisoners will be counted in the Lawrence County census. "This could possibly hurt our grant and other opportunities down the line," he said.

However, Wilson said that the increase in the census would result in additional turnback funds as well.

Taylor also showed concerns about the stigma attached to being a prison community. "We will see an exodus of locals who liked the peaceful bedroom community our town once was," he said. Economic effects

The prison is expected by many to increase population, create jobs and business opportunities and be an overall boost for the community's economy.

A population increase will surely occur due to inmate population; however, census data for Jackson County, home to two state units, shows the county has not experienced ongoing growth. The McPherson and Grimes units were established in 1998 near Newport. From 2000 to 2012, Jackson County's population decreased from 18,351 to 17,600 according to the United States Census Bureau, compared to Lawrence County, which decreased from 17,679 to 17,012.

Bringing in additional jobs is the leading asset the prison offers to Lawrence County. Walnut Ridge mayoral candidate Ed Lawson said that if nothing else comes from proceeding in the application process, he hopes that it will at least show Walnut Ridge as a place that is looking to grow.

"I want Little Rock to know that we need jobs in Walnut Ridge. I do not want them to get the message that we do not want jobs and growth for our community," Lawson said.

The prison will initially employ 250 people. The majority of these jobs will be security positions, but it would also need administrative assistants, medical staff, teachers and other support staff.

It is uncertain how many of those jobs will go to Lawrence County residents. According to the ADC, the Newport units employ 444 people and 150 of those live within the county, slightly under 35%.

Walnut Ridge mayoral candidate Charles Snapp said that it is important to remember at this time that PECO has already begun construction on their processing plant.

"Their total investment in this area is estimated to be $165 million when completed. They will employ 1,000 people, and their pay base is similar to the prison pay scale," Snapp said.

It is unknown what Lawrence County will receive out of the prison's annual budget of $19 million. Those on staff who commute from other counties are expected to bring very little revenue into the county though the prisoners themselves will have to pay sales tax on items purchased through the prison commissary.

Much of the budget will go to state contracts to bring in food and supplies needed for the facility. Ernest (Junior) Briner, Lawrence Health Services vice president of support services, said he expects Lawrence Memorial Hospital to develop a contract with the state should a prison locate in the county.

The prison will also pay property and utility taxes. Walnut Ridge Mayor Don House said between Walnut Ridge sewer expansions and the NEA Public Water Authority treatment plant, the county should be able to handle the new facility. He said it may even lower utility costs as more of the water volume already generated will be used and it will allow the system to run more efficiently.

The ADC is still seeking funding for the prison; once a location is selected and funding has been obtained, an additional six to eight years is needed for project completion.

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