Board of Corrections creates new position aimed to ease prisoners' transition into community

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a press conference at the Arkansas State Police Headquarters where she signed the Protect Arkansas Act on Tuesday, April 11, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a press conference at the Arkansas State Police Headquarters where she signed the Protect Arkansas Act on Tuesday, April 11, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

The Arkansas Board of Corrections voted on Thursday to create a new position meant to plan and implement what Department of Corrections Secretary Lindsay Wallace called a "seamless continuum of care for incarceration and transition to community."

The board also voted to hire Tracy Dowell, the interim superintendent of the Arkansas Correctional School, to take on the superintendent role on a permanent basis, and heard a report on suicides in Arkansas prisons.

Titled assistant director of correctional programs and reentry, the person chosen for the role will "essentially have an opportunity to structure programming based on the needs of the Department, as set out in the Protect Arkansas Act," according to a memo written by Wallace prior to the meeting.

Creation of the position is required by Act 659, known as the Protect Arkansas Act, Wallace said during the four-hour board meeting at the Ouachita Unit in Malvern. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the legislation into law in April 2023. Among the legislation's 131 pages are provisions intended to better prepare incarcerated people to reenter the workforce. The law requires the Board of Corrections to develop rules setting guidelines for the accrual of earned release credits for work practices, job responsibilities, good behavior and involvement in rehabilitative activities.

The compensation scale for the assistant director of correctional programs and reentry role, considered a "GS14" position, will range from about $86,000 to $125,000, depending on the experience and background of the person selected for the role, Wallace said.

Responsibilities for the role will include:

- Implementing evidence-based institutional, reintegration, and community supervision programs and services.

- Ensuring the availability of evidence-based interventions for incarcerated and supervised individuals with different needs and risk levels.

- Establishing programming and outcome metrics; creating policies for programs and services.

- Addressing areas in need of improvement identified by Quality Improvement and Program Evaluation researchers.

At least two board members, Chairman Benny Magness and William "Dubs" Byers, expressed hesitation about approving the role before ultimately voting in its favor moments before the board adjourned.

"If you can tell me this person will be a facilitator and not a dictator I would be all for it," Byers told Wallace.

"Yes, sir," Wallace said. "I mean, that's the plan."

Division of Community Correction Director Dexter Payne said he believed the position, if it were classified as a GS14 role, should include a detailed description of what the assistant director should do and who they would supervise. According to Payne, the agency usually determines who a person is supervising before determining their grade classification.

"That's my only concern," Payne said. "I think the concept is excellent."

The starting salary for the GS12 classification is $69,776 as opposed to the roughly $86,000 starting salary for the GS14 position, Nicholas C. Stewart, human resources and administrative training administrator, told the board.

Wallace said that she believed the qualifications to be eligible for the job would require the GS14 classification to draw applications from the appropriate candidates. According to her memo, the position requires someone who "understands all aspects of implementing evidenced based programming, such as an individual with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, counseling, psychology, social work, or a related field and at least three years of experience in a treatment program for justice-involved individuals." Work-related experience could be substituted for some of the educational qualifications.

Arkansas Division of Community Correction Director Jim Cheek also conveyed support for the new position.

A key element of the plan is ensuring the agency works with those who come into contact with the system "the moment they come in the door," rather than only initiating that preparation as their release date approaches, according to the secretary.

"It's a big task," Wallace said. "I don't know what all it's going to entail, frankly, but I know that we've got to do something to help us improve on this side."

Speaking in favor of the new role, board member Lona McCastlain expressed confidence the right person in the role would decrease recidivism in Arkansas' prisons. She described the effort as part of a larger move to "reorganize" the state's correctional system.

"This is reorganization of corrections here in Arkansas," she said. "We're going to have to do it differently. The Protect Act is making it different."

The motion to create the role, made by McCastlain and seconded by Byers, was approved by the board without vocal opposition.

The Board of Corrections went into executive session for about an hour and a half to interview candidates for the Arkansas Correctional School superintendent position, which became vacant after Bill Glover died Feb. 21. When the board returned, they voted unanimously to hire interim superintendent Tracy Dowell to assume the role on a permanent basis.

Before voting, Byers said he thought the two candidates "did an exceptional job" during the interview.

"That was one reason we were back there so long, is because both candidates were very good," he said. "I think any one of them might be a good choice."

With regard to bed space, Wallace said efforts to expand the McPherson Unit, a women's prison near Newport, are "ongoing." The expected opening date for the expansion is late August or September, according to the secretary.

Cheek said his division is working to add 70 beds to the Southwest Arkansas Community Correction Center in Texarkana, pushing its capacity from 540 to 610. The estimated cost of the project is $95,000, he said.

Wallace said her team is working with the governor's office on putting together a request for quote or request for proposal with regard to housing some inmates out of state. According to the secretary, Sanders' office has always expected the Corrections Department to first exhaust the agency's bed space before looking to other states. "It seems like we're approaching that," she said.

Though Payne did not present on the number of inmates currently within his division, a population count provided by agency spokeswoman Dina Tyler lists 18,886 total inmates within the Corrections Department, six fewer than were reported in April.

The Board of Corrections also heard a presentation from Tabrina Bratton on suicides in Arkansas prisons. Bratton is listed on the Department of Corrections website as the agency's quality improvement and program evaluation administrator. She earned a master's degree and Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's School of Criminal Justice and Criminology.

Bratton said that, nationwide, suicides in prisons over the past two decades have increased by roughly 80%.

In Arkansas between 2017 and the end of 2022, 49 people died by suicide in Arkansas prisons, according to the researcher. The most suicides in a single year within that period occurred in 2019, with 11 people taking their lives.

Tyler told board members six people have committed suicide in Arkansas prisons so far this year, though only eight people did so in all of 2023.

On average, people who died by suicide were incarcerated for 8.6 years before their death, with the average time remaining on their sentences being 26 years, according to Bratton. Three-quarters of those who died by suicide were serving time for violent offenses. Bratton said 82% of those who killed themselves were in single-person cells at the time of their death.

The researcher told board members that, while she expected that the rate of suicides would decline as inmates received treatment, she found the opposite had occurred.

"We found that most people who die by suicide died within a week of their last mental health encounter," she said.

Bratton said her research found that more than 70% of the assessments used to identify people at risk of killing themselves were done incorrectly.

The researcher gave several recommendations for reducing the rate of suicides in Arkansas prisons:

- Training on predictors, assessment tools, report-writing and treatment plans.

- Assess mental health treatment strategies.

- Implement evidence-based mental health treatment policies.

- Create an alternative to single-person cells.

- Address misclassification issues.

- Examine suicide attempts by unit.

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