By KELI JACOBI For the Sunday News EL DORADO – A backlog of female prisoners – 255 and counting – for which the Arkansas Department of Correction has no room, has created a ripple effect, forcing county sheriffs across the state into a game of logistical leapfrogging where daily decisions are made to release non-violent offenders back into the community until more beds become available. The recent outbreak of convicted felony females awaiting space in state prison reflects a reversal from past trends in which men always outdistanced women, according to ADC spokesperson Dina Tyler.
Tyler said the demand has prompted the state to add 200 new beds dedicated to a women’s unit at Wrightsville and slated to open April 1, with an additional 200 on the way in another year or so.
What hasn’t changed, said Tyler, is the backlog.
"Unless the universe tilts, we’ll always be backed up," she said. "Right now we’ve got around 500 total prisoners (255 women and 238 men) waiting for beds across the state. It’s sad to say, but those are pretty good numbers. One year we got as high as 1,450."
A backlog of both violent and non violent criminal populations exists, according to Tyler, leaving an added burden on local sheriffs who must decide who remains locked up and who is released.
The female unit at the Union County Jail in El Dorado is following statewide trends and remains near capacity on a regular basis, accord ing to Union County Sheriff Ken Jones. The continual backlog poses routine managerial headaches to be dealt with in the most pragmatic way possible, he said.
"I look at violent offenders versus non-violent, flight risk versus non flight risk, first-time offenders ver sus repeat offenders – those kind of things," he said.
"So, if you’ve got backlogs of two or three months on females and you’ve got a female going to prison for writing hot checks and who has lived here all her life or someone facing battery charges and she’s fled before, who do you think we’re going to pick?" said Jones.
Jones said his decisions are always done in coordination with the prosecutor and the courts, although recent state legislation allows a sheriff to release prisoners without those provisions in extreme cases. Releasing a non-violent prisoner on bond creates a win-win situation for the county, according to Jones.
The case of Alice Ann Wilkins, 52, of Louann, who pleaded guilty on Tuesday to theft of property and seconddegree forgery and who was sent home after receiving a 15-year sentence illustrates that point.
"It’s an added expense to the county to hold those kind of people because the department of corrections doesn’t pick up medical expenses until after 30 days," said Jones.
"She has no priors, no record of being a flight risk, she’s going to do her sentence and she doesn’t get any credit until she’s transported to the penitentiary," he continued. "With us being on such a fine line between having enough room and not having enough, I had to make that choice," said Jones, who added that the jail is only meant to hold about 30 beds for female prisoners.
When a prisoner is released under certain conditions, he or she is not to leave the county without prior approval and in some cases may have to check in by phone, but are otherwise free to come and go as they please, Jones said.
The catch, he added, is that the prisoner is just one call away from having to report within 24 hours should space become available, making it difficult for a convicted felon to live a life close to normal. "We would literally just call and say come on in Monday," he said, indicating that in Wilkins’ case, the wait shouldn’t be more than a few months.
Jones doesn’t utilize home monitoring devices – "more trouble than they are worth" – and said he never releases someone imprisoned on a violent conviction. It is not unusual for the jail to be backed up with occasional "severe" spikes, pushing the set of checks and balances on inmates to the max.
"Severe is when we’re so backed up we have no space whatsoever and we’re having to release new inmates in order to make the room," he said, indicating that as many as 40 females with sleeping cots on the floor have jammed into the local unit at such times.
"It’s a tricky management issue," Jones admitted.
"When the pen doesn’t have a tremendous backlog, we run an average daily population of 150 to 175 total ... something has been kind of weird in the last six months in that we have been extremely overcrowded in our female section of the jail. Some of it is backlog at the state women’s unit and some of it’s been new arrests."
Occasionally the backlog has created a situation where a prisoner might finish their sentence in county jail while waiting for room in prison, particularly for a non-violent offender who already has a short sentence and is credited with good behavior.
Still, the situation could be much worse, said Jones. Before the department of correction built new units several years ago, county jails were routinely in a crisis.
"It was much worse in the late 90s," said Jones. "It’s gotten a lot better, although we still have some spikes. But, in general, it’s not as bad as it used to be."
And the ADC provides another caveat to ease the load on local sheriff’s offices. "If I have a violent prisoner who is causing a lot of prob lems I can request the depart ment of correction take that person as soon as possible," said Jones.
Euphrates Whitt, who was sentenced in Union County last year to two life sentences for his role in the murder of Huttig native Jason Hughes, was a prime example of such a case.
"The day he got his sen tence we called the prison and they took him that night ... we had to chase him for two years before we got him, so you know when he’s facing two life sentences if he got the opportunity to hurt some body to get out of here he might take it.
"If I see those risks and dan gers then I pick up the phone and ask them to take him/her ... and they always do."
As for the continual back log, Jones said he has "learned to deal with it" and that the problem would’ve been much worse if community leaders hadn’t had the foresight to build the current jail facility which, at 13 years old, is rela tively young by state stan dards.
"There are other county jails that are older and smaller and they don’t have the space to take care of what’s going on in their community," he said, pointing to neighboring Ouachita County for instance.
"We were in a bind (back then) and (county leaders) knew we had to do something to correct this problem so they built the perfect size jail for our county," Jones acknowledged.
Saying he cannot remember a time at the sheriff’s office where there hasn’t been at least one arrest per day, Jones has learned to take the prison crunch in stride.
"This weekend if it’s warm and pretty, I’ll leave here on Friday with 175 prisoners and I’ll walk in with 35 sitting and waiting for booking and first appearance on Monday, that’s how quick it can change," he said.
"That’s a great example of the shuffle that takes place on a regular basis," he concluded.