Prisons, Profit, and Politics: How Arkansas Politicians “Fixed” A System That Wasn’t Broken (Guest Post)

As Gov. Hutchinson announces his push for $7.4 million to expand Arkansas’ prisons, I’m reminded that Arkansas has the fastest growing prison population in the nation since 2013, despite having seen a steady decrease in crime. If the United States is the largest incarcerator in the world, then Arkansas is on pace to become the incarceration capital of the world. This sobering reality is particularly inciting when considering how Arkansas’ Incarceration Crisis has been felt particularly strongly among women and already marginalized Black communities. We have to demand better of our policymakers, our administrators, and, most importantly, ourselves.

I recently paid a visit to a prison where I met an Arkansan named Percy Henderson who had been incarcerated for forty-two years. We spoke in the hospital wing of the prison as the sixty-three year-old suffered from HIV, hepatitis C, and liver failure.

Sitting next to a stack of Bibles, Mr. Henderson mused. “Society feels that there is no hope for us, and there is no hope because they are not willing to invest in us. They are investing in bricks and iron. You have to invest in the flesh to touch the heart and mind. I know it could be done if our people could just get behind it. And that’s all it takes. We’re way overdue.” A month later Mr. Henderson died in captivity—alone.

Mr. Henderson is just one of the thousands of casualties of the Arkansas Incarceration Crisis. We are setting record highs in our incarcerated population nearly every month of 2015. In 2013, there was an average daily prison population of 14,780 people, with 391 in jail awaiting transport to prison. Fast forward to May 2015, where we see a record high 18,839 people in Arkansas’ prisons, with an additional 2,770 people in county jails waiting to be transported to prison. Despite a downward trend in crime from 2013 to present, we have 6,438 more people in prison or waiting to be transported to prison.

Notably, most of the newly incarcerated people are there for petty crimes and low-level felonies. For example, only ninety people were incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes in 2011, compared to over 3,000 people in 2014. Contrary to popular belief, this is not just a Black issue, because the overwhelming majority of the 3,000 people imprisoned for nonviolent drug crimes in 2014 were White (over 2,500).

Let there be no mistake about it: Blacks are over-represented in nearly every aspect of Arkansas’ criminal justice system. Blacks are 44% of the prison population, despite constituting only 16% of the state population. According the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there is no statistical difference in drug use between Blacks and Whites. However Black males, who make up 35% of Little Rock’s male population, represented 80% of Little Rock’s drug arrests in 2013.

Arkansas’ women are particularly vulnerable to this incarceration surge as well. There was a 47% increase in newly incarcerated women in 2014, compared to a 14% increase in newly incarcerated men. Worse still, this disparate impact on women is happening at a time when the U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into allegations of rampant sexual abuse in McPherson Women’s Correctional Facility.

Placed in context, the numbers make little sense. Here we have a 3,300% increase in drug convictions in a time when there’s a national consensus that the War on Drugs is a failure. We have an especially high increase in incarceration of women in a time when women and their allies across the country are decrying the War on Women. We have an unjustified targeting of Blacks in a time when we are standing up and proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.

How did this happen? In the words of a report commissioned by the Department of Correction, “With a declining crime rate and only moderate growth in the resident population, the recent large increase in Arkansas’ incarcerated population is likely driven by policy choices within the state’s criminal justice system.”

We allowed Senator David Sanders, a private school administrator with–according to his legislative biography–no professional or academic criminal justice experience to pass three pieces of legislation in 2013 that changed parole for the worse. And after a mentally ill parolee committed a murder later that same year, the Board of Corrections under Benny Magness implemented even more policy reforms, which resulted in droves of parolees being sent back to prison despite not having been convicted of committing any new crimes. Far from being the voice of reason, Community Corrections Director Shelia Sharp was all too eager to implement these unnecessary policy changes.

At the time 89% of parolees were compliant with their parole and violent crime was at a 10-year low. Both crime and incarceration had been on the decline. Your legislators and correctional administrators broke a system that was working perfectly fine.

Now Governor Hutchinson has put his foot on the gas by pushing through legislation sponsored by his nephew, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, allowing police officers to conduct warrantless searches of parolees’ and probationers’ houses, cars and persons anytime, day or night, for literally no good reason at all. And while seemingly more conservative states like Kentucky are allowing nonviolent burglars with no record to become eligible for parole after two months, the Arkansas General Assembly has, at the request of the Governor, made nonviolent burglary a violent felony, opening the door to first-time nonviolent burglars possibly never making parole. By the way, Kentucky has decreased their crime rate by 14%, which is double Arkansas’ decrease (7%). You are paying more money to be less safe.

Currently, the Governor is pushing backdoor prisons called “reentry centers,” in which incarcerated people will be provided all of the remedial services that they should have been provided since day one of their sentence. Again, crime has gone down; we do not need these new prisons. We need quality services to be provided to the incarcerated population in the traditional prisons. We need a more rational and less invasive parole system that does not send people to prison for trifling violations like spending the night at their boyfriend’s house. We need to decrease more of our draconian sentences. In short, we need our legislators not to fail us, as they have (repeatedly) in recent years.

No wonder private correctional corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America and LaSalle Corporation have been lobbying our legislators and Governor Hutchinson so heavily. We’ve passed arguably the worst criminal justice legislation in the country over the last two legislative sessions. Private correctional corporations are vying to become the latest recipients of what I call the Arkansas Correctional Corporate Welfare Program.

Haven’t heard of this program? It is the one that takes millions of your hard earned dollars and funnels it to private corporations like Dean Henderson Equipment, Greenway Equipment and Miller Bowie Supply. Millions of dollars that could have been used to provide housing for the person squatting on your property. Millions of dollars that could have been used employing the person selling drugs outside of your house. Millions of dollars that could have been used to provide dispute resolution training to the person that shot your son. These private correctional corporations want a piece of the pie.

Democrats and Republicans around the nation are looking at our state with shame and disgust while we obediently give inadequate legislators and stale administrators the benefit of the doubt. This is not Patriotism. Patriotism is having the courage to demand better.

I encourage you to truly read the writings of this country’s Founding Fathers. When you think about the warrantless searches introduced by Sen. Hutchinson, remember Founding Father George Mason, who said, “That general warrants, whereby any officer or messenger may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of a fact committed…are grievous and oppressive and ought not to be granted.”

When you think about living in the state with the fastest growing prison population, despite a declining crime rate, remember Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, who said, “the people are always most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those of whom they entertain the least suspicion,” and “Let us not attempt to reconcile contradictions but firmly embrace a rational alternative.”

More importantly, remember Percy Henderson, who died alone in captivity in your name. Demand a decrease in incarceration and nothing less. Will the true Patriots stand up and be heard?

Omavi Shukur is a Little Rock native and the Founder and Director of Seeds of Liberation, a non-profit organization that works alongside Arkansas’ marginalized communities to create a just, equitable and empowering criminal justice system. He can be reached at omavi@seedsofliberaiton.org.