Community Corrections ready to make deal to bring center to old hospital site

Director: ‘We do bring a lot to the community’

By Mark Randall news@theeveningtimes.com

It’s not a done deal yet, but county officials do expect to meet and vote soon about whether or not to lease the former Crittenden Regional Hospital building to Department of Arkansas Community Correction for a licensed treatment center for female drug offenders. “I believe at some point that will happen,” said County Judge Woody Wheeless. “ I’m not sure how soon that will happen. But the Quorum Court will have to decide whether they want to move forward with this project. And out of respect, we’ve go to give an answer to community corrections people of what our intentions are.” ACC approached the county about leasing the former hospital for a 350 bed licensed treatment center for non-violent female drug offenders. Representatives from ACC discussed plans for the facility and answered questions from skeptical residents at a public meeting held at the Schoettle Center on Monday. The meeting drew a standing room only crowd of about 120 residents. “Their crimes are all non-violent and all non-sexual,” said ACC Director Sheila Sharp. “Most are sent here for drug related offenses.” The department currently has five similar centers across the state — three male facilities and two for females. Inmates participate in a 270 day program which teaches them life skills and work skills needed in order to return them to productive citizens. All inmates earn their GED and the facility also offers some college courses as well. Sharp said their program has a huge success rate with only a 28 percent recidivism rate. “That is a very low recidivism rate compared to the prison system rate where they have a 48 percent rate,” Sharp said. ACC would be transferring its operations from Pine Bluff to West Memphis if the deal is approved. “We are in an old boy’s training school and the buildings are very old and the maintenance is extremely high,” Sharp said. “We need to do several million dollars of work to it up to par.” Sharp said if the lease the hospital, ACC would be responsible for making any repairs and updates. The building has a leaky rook, an old boiler system, and the upstairs was gutted due to a fire. The county has been paying about $100,000 a month to keep the utilities on and the building secured and insured. “We already know there will have to be some investment on our part to put back into the building,” Sharp said. Sharp also assured residents that the offenders were non-violent and that they are supervised 24 hours a day. She also noted that the building would be well landscaped and would not be a detriment to the neighborhood. ACC has similar locations in residential areas next to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock and one in downtown Fayetteville close to the square and University of Arkansas. “If you drive by it, you wouldn’t know it is there,” Sharp said of the one in Little Rock. Deputy Director Mike Murphy said there is a great need in Arkansas for this type of program. The state only has room for 16,000 inmates but are currently housing 18,000 inmates. Murphy said that communities actively seek them out to locate these types of facilities in their cities because of the need for this type of program. “They see the good progress they do for those individuals with drug and alcohol problems, and secondly, what it does for the economy,” Murphy said. The inmates count toward the population which means the city gets the turnback money from the state. One resident objected to having the facility in West Memphis arguing that the city already has a bad reputation and that locating a prison here would harm the city’s efforts to attract industry. “As a concerned citizen, I don’t really want it here,” she said. “I’m scared for my property value. I’m scared for when we want to bring in more business. We can’t get a Steak n Shake or a Lowe’s because our crime rate is so high. I don’t want to sound like I don’t want people to be rehabilitated, but I’m worried about where we’re going in our city.” Murphy said the facility would employ 138 people and pump $6 million into the local economy. The jobs will pay between $25,000 and $52,000. “We know there are some people who want to put the best company in or the best manufacturer or business,” Murphy said. “But we do bring a lot to the community. We are pretty well sought after. We don’t close. We don’t move those jobs away.” Other residents expressed concern about their property values declining if the facility were allowed to open in West Memphis. “A year and a half ago my house was appraised at $80,000,” one resident said. “Last month, I went to borrow money on it and it has dropped to $42,000 because the hospital closed.” Murphy said they already have similar facilities in residential areas and have never had a problem with neighbors complaining. “Is it the most popular business? No,” Murphy said. “All I can say is, we are in residential areas. We have never heard a complaint from any of our communities that home values have decreased. “If the building isn’t occupied, I can tell you that the building we looked at a few years ago, the board who controlled that old hospital didn’t approve us going in there. It now has no windows and is a meth house. The police are having to make numerous trips there every day.” Others were concerned about safety issues and having felons near senior citizens. Sharp said there are already inmates on probation or parole in West Memphis and that the ones at their facility are all non-violent offenders. “In West Memphis there are 1,560 individuals who are under our supervision who report to a parole or probation officer,” Sharp said. “You are more likely to run in to someone at Walmart or Walgreens or wherever you shop that’s on parole or probation that you never know than you are to have contact with individuals who are at our treatment facility.” Wheeless assured residents that they were still gathering information and that the Quorum Court will ultimately debate whether this is the best use for the building. The Quorum Court will next meet on March 15. However, Wheeless said there is a possibility they may have a special meeting to discuss the proposed lease. “As soon as we can work out the details of the lease agreement where we can have something to discuss,” Wheeless said. “And we are working on that right now. I just sent a copy of the revised lease agreement back to Arkansas Community Correction by e-mail. I don’t know how fast they will act on that. But that part will have to be acted on first before we have something to present to the court.” Wheeless said the county will continue to keep the utilities on until at least March 15 when the court meets. Still, Wheeless said he believes ACC is a good fit the building. “We had numerous Quorum Court members there. I don’t think their views have changed,” Wheeless said. “If anything, I think they understand it better today because of the presentation. I get it when you have people who are for it and people who are against it. But at the end of the day we have to make a decision as to what we think is in the best interest of the citizens. And the Quorum Court will have that opportunity to decide.”

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