Arkansas Division of Corrections does not keep records of overdose deaths

A brief response on December 28, 2021 to a Freedom of Information Act request regarding inmate drug overdoses created more questions than it answered.

What happened: “We are not maintaining records responding to your request,” read the email from the Arkansas Department of Corrections public information officer in response to an investigation seeking further opioid- or fentanyl-related deaths. in state prisons.

  • The reaction raised the question: why not? And that led to a closer look at the kinds of information the Arkansas Division of Corrections (ADC) — part of the Department of Corrections — publicly reports.

Why is this important: Every day, CDA is responsible for over 17,000 inmates and 4,500 staff. So a lack of transparency about deaths should concern any Arkansan.

What they don’t say: Dexter Payne, the division’s director, declined multiple interview requests through his public information officer, Cindy Murphy.

  • A final call Tuesday to Arkansas Department of Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves yielded no results.

The other side: ADC collects and publishes a wealth of information, including annual and monthly reports.

Yes, but: Reports use average prison populations, rather than raw numbers, tend to give positives about training programs and bury less flattering details in number-heavy charts with little context.

State of play: A phone conversation with Murphy on July 15 painted a picture of a department under high turnover, inefficient with its data, and unwilling to take additional action in the interest of informing the public.

  • She said Axios data resided in different silos across the department, personnel changes created knowledge gaps, and “Arkansas’ Freedom of Information law does not require not here [Department of Corrections] to create a document or spreadsheet in response to a request for information.”
Overcrowded prison population

Data: Arkansas Department of Corrections; Graphic: Skye Witley/Axios

State prisons often have more inmates than capacity, according to data analyzed by Axios.

Driving the news: About 1,100 new beds are planned for the Corrections Division, but it may be years before they are available for inmates.

  • In March, lawmakers included $75 million to expand the North Central Calico Rock Unit by nearly 500 beds in the Department of Corrections’ appropriations bill.
  • The department plans to spend more than $4 million to convert a former juvenile detention center into a parole and probation facility for lower-level offenders, adding 150 beds.
  • A planned $8 million, 500-bed facility to be operated by a private contractor in southeast Arkansas was scheduled to open in early 2022, but has yet to begin.

The big picture: State prisons have often been overcrowded by at least 500 inmates for the past five years, and it looks like the problem will get worse before it gets better. Partly as a result of state growth, the prison population is expected to grow 1.4% per year, reaching 19,160 by 2031.

  • By one measure, Arkansas’ incarceration rate is the fifth highest in the world, at 942 per 100,000 people locked up.

  • Inmates also stay longer. The average sentence length in fiscal year 2012 was just under four years. In 2021, it was just over five years.

By the numbers: There were 17,229 people incarcerated in Arkansas state prisons at the start of June.

  • The state’s maximum capacity for fiscal year 2021, which ended June 30, was 15,454.
  • A total of 757 contract beds were available at the start of fiscal year 2021, but an agreement with Bowie County, Texas ended in October 2020, reducing overflow beds to about 400.

Even with reduced total incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic, the raw number of people incarcerated at the end of each month was higher than the capacity figures provided to Axios.

The other side: The CDA’s 2021 annual report breaks down the capacity of each prison unit, based on its population. The department uses annual average figures which tend to smooth out instantaneous population peaks. The graph illustrates a system that is close to, but not above, capacity.

  • Twice in 2021, the ADC used the Emergency Food Act to release approximately 300 inmates and reduce overcrowding.

The plot: ADC’s public information officer ignored several questions from Axios seeking additional context on the overcrowding.

The bottom line: The numbers do not reflect overcrowding in county jails where inmates are waiting to be transferred to a public facility.

  • In February, Gov. Asa Hutchinson posted a graph showing that more than 2,200 incarcerated people have been saved in the county system.

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