Possible prison location in Blevins, jail and Sheriff's office needs, siren troubles discussed at Hempstead Quorum Court meeting

At Thursday night’s Hempstead County Quorum Court Meeting, the question of whether a state prison will come to the area was the concern of the first speaker. Later discussion about the need to fix the jail sprinkler and alarm system came to the fore, as well as the urgency to make sure all Hempstead County residents can be informed about weather and other emergencies. District V’s Justice of the Peace, Robert Whitlock has moved and his seat declared vacant.

After the invocation, the pledge to the flag and the approval of the March meeting’s minutes, County Judge Jerry Crane, in a rearrangement of the agenda to get to the three scheduled speakers, asked first if David Boone, from the ministries of the Hope Senior Center was present. He was not. But the next speaker was.

Sylvia Brown, representing the Visibility Outreach Touch Engage South Arkansas Collective (VOTE SoAR), described plans for the second annual celebration of Juneteenth which will take place Friday June 16-Sunday June 18. This year a reception will occur in Old Washington to commemorate the black community’s contributions, including the town’s status as the southwest district site for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a post-Civil War endeavor funded by the U.S. government to educate former slaves. Brown said VOTE SoAR is seeking three categories of sponsorship, the Black Futures level ($500 or up), Carter G. Woodson Pioneers ($175 and up) and Freedom Fighters (up to $50). Brown also requested a resolution be passed observing that Juneteenth will continue to be a yearly celebration in the county.

The next speaker was Hannah Humphrey of Blevins, who spoke out in opposition to locating a prison in the Blevins area.  She expressed displeasure that the handouts of information from studies about the negative results of prisons being located in towns had been left on the JPs’ table after last month’s meeting. She said very few of the questions asked by opponents of the prison had been answered in a Hope-Hempstead County Economic Development meeting she attended last Thursday.

She also questioned the rightness of a proposal she had heard that the county was going to buy land for $1.5 million and then donate it to the state to build the prison on. She had understood these funds were to come from COVID-relief funds.  She also said she had heard from state officials that several places were in consideration for the new prison. “It is not finalized,” she said, referring to the decision of where the prison would be placed. “We will continue to show up.”  The audience of about two dozen applauded after she spoke.

Judge Crane said he had been told by Hope-Hempstead County Economic Development Corporation President Steve Harris that Department of Corrections would have to answer the questions about the prison proposal.  At this point, Crane said, “they still have yet to come here and look at the sites.”  He said the prison proposal is “still in the talking stage,” and that “the county is not looking at paying for all this land.”

“There may be a portion of it,” Crane said, “We don’t know yet. Nothing’s finalized. We’re still here for you, and we’ll do our best to answer.”

Crane asked Humphrey if Harris had mailed her any information. “I haven’t seen any,” Humphrey said.

Two appropriations ordinances were passed by roll call voice vote, one allowing for an expenditure of $22,042.16 for small equipment support, the other allowing for an expenditure of $77,000 to replace Sheriff’s Office record-keeping software that had been in use since 1994 and would no longer be supported by Microsoft.

Sheriff James Singleton reported that an inspection had revealed the need for repair of sprinklers and a fire alarm system at the county jail. He has already gotten one estimate for the work and will receive another from the contractors who installed the courthouse’s system.

Discussion then proceeded about the late difficulties with the county’s emergency notification system. Parts of the county don’t receive adequate warning of storm or other emergency-related events. Judge Crane said it was likely since emergency notification was concerned, grant funds may be available.

Later in the meeting, Crane said the American Rescue Plan Act funds have to be appropriated. (Unless they are spent by the end of December 2023, they are returned to the federal government). But he said the county has many needs, too. “We’ve got a water project in Patmos. They need a new water system there.”  

Crane also referred to needed upgrade of the county’s emergency sirens. “We’re talking people’s lives, whether they’re being safe. We need to slow down and just look at it real hard, and make sure every move we make is legal and proper and this will meet the needs of the county. The people in the county are who we’re here for.” At this, several members of the Quorum Court applauded.

Before the meeting concluded, Sheriff Singleton asked that Eddie Brazzel be recognized for his contributions to the community and that a prayer be said. Justice of the Peace Jesse Henry led this prayer. Then the meeting adjourned.