Backlash against locating prison in Hempstead County draws crowd to Quorum Court meeting

Hempstead County Judge Jerry Crane speaks to the audience who gathered for the county’s Quorum Court meeting which featured speakers discussing the proposal to locate at least one and possibly two prisons in the county.

The March meeting of the Hempstead County Quorum Court, taking place in the Hempstead County Courthouse yesterday afternoon and shown on video above this story, was entirely concerned with the proposal to locate a state prison in the northern part of the county, near Blevins. First, four speakers were given three minutes to address the court, then County Judge Jerry Crane allowed members of a large audience that filled the third-floor courtroom to ask questions and express opinions.

Before the meeting was adjourned it was clear that the JPs, including among them members of the Hope Economic Development Corporation, had resolved to take a closer look at whether allowing a state prison to be located in the county was a good decision.

The meeting began promptly at 5:30 p.m. with an invocation said by Justice of the Peace Jesse Henry, a pledge of allegiance to the flag, a roll call of the justices, then a quick approval of minutes of the February meeting.

There being no old or new business on the agenda, Judge Crane proceeded to speakers. He laid a set of ground rules.  Each of the four speakers on the agenda would be given three minutes to speak. Afterward, Economic Development Corporation President Steve Harris would make some remarks and answer questions from the assembled audience, which filled the benches in the third-floor courtroom.

First to speak was Kathy Wall. She presented the JPs with a petition which she said contained 200 signatures gathered in the Blevins area and a document with information on it.  “We understand why this looks like an attractive option for growing the county economically. Mr. Harris and Representative [Danny] Watson have received a glowing report of all the advantages of pursuing this enterprise. And I’m not going to help them out by repeating them here. But we have concerns. These gentlemen presented only the advantages. The only downsides considered by them were the possible hindrances to the plan, and not the real cost to the county nor to the Blevins community,” she said.

Among the disadvantages Wall listed, which she said were more fully elaborated in the material she gave to the JPS, were the increases in the crime rate seen in towns near prisons, the likelihood of a prison increasing the dangers of a future pandemic, a possible negative environmental impact, the possible failure of the prison to open once built because of an economic downturn, the possible failure of the prison to recruit adequate staffing and the possible attraction of gang crime and corruption to the area.

Wall referred to the number of citizens interested in the issue at a meeting about two weeks ago in Blevins. “We are a small but active community. The turnout at our town meeting proves that and the signatures on the petition. And the number of folks here who drove 20 miles at supper time after working all day. We don’t want to be told to take our medicine, and let others decide what’s good for us,” she said.

In closing, Wall asked the Quorum Court to represent to state officials the level of opposition seen in the meeting. “We realizethat the final decision lies in the hands of others, but we are asking the Quorum Court to support the people of Blevins, your constituents. We believe that the state will take into consideration any advisory opinion presented from this court and we are asking for your help. Thank you for listening to us tonight. We appreciate your service to the community.”

The other speakers were Hannah Humphries spoke to the way a prison in a community “quietly injures its perception of itself,” according to a former mayor of a prison town in New York State, endangers residents as former inmates are released, and causes mental health problems for those employed in the prison. She spoke of Ionia, Michigan where “there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence of increased rates of divorce, alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide, health problems, family violence and other crimes associated with prison communities.”

Humphries also cited information from studies done to inquire whether prisons led to economic improvement in the communities nearby: “Multiple long term studies over the last 30 years have shown that the building of prisons in rural communities have not boosted their local economies. More recently, Northwestern University found that over all prisons fail to provide major stimulus to the local economy despite assertions to the contrary by prison proponents.”

She also cited the difficulties the county may have with unforeseen expenses related to support of a prison.  “What Hempstead county officials and residents need to ask if this is truly worth the endless sacrificing and the unknown fiscal and societal costs,” she concluded. “We can do better on how we choose to grow.”

The next speaker Emily Boyd, a resident of northern Hempstead County, asked about the lack of notice given to the public about the proposal. “On the whole, it appears that there’s still low awareness across the county. Why is this not been addressed when it will impact residents from areas all over the county? What residents’ comments drove Representative Watson and Mr. Harris and the selection committee to presume the residents of Hempstead county want a prison facility here?”  She also asked what specific locations are being considered, and how upkeep of the prison at a presumed cost of $31 million a year would be financed given that Governor Sanders’ LEARNS Act “is not fully funded” and she has plans to cut income taxes.Ha

The next speaker, Steve Burke, a resident of Blevins said “The main thing is we need answers to different concerns.” Among those would be the ability to supply water and handle the wastewater from the prison, how the prison’s not paying property taxes would impact residents’ property taxes.

When Steve Harris spoke, he said the Hempstead County Economic Development Corporation board “determined it was a positive economic development activity for us to look at.” The board sent documents expressing interest in the county hosting a 400-acre 1,000-bed prison and then two months later a five to 40 acre 250-bed community service prison similar to Malvern’s Ouachita River Correctional Unit. Four different proposals by the EDC were sent. Two locations, one off Highway 67 West near the city landfill and the other on what is currently private land between Blevins and Prescott were included in those proposals, Harris said.

He took issue with the citation of studies, since “you can get about any any study, you want to kind of prove your point.” With regard to a study showing only 20 percent of prison jobs would be provided to local residents, he said that the study had been done in California where the prison employees were unionized. “Initially, they did only hire 20 percent from the local community, but later went up to 40 percent. Therefore, there’s about a third that are local, that live in their county, and about two thirds live out. But the two thirds of the that are not too far out, and they come in and shop locally. So there’s some benefit, even if they don’t live in the community.”

He said that if both prisons were to be built in Hempstead County, the net gain would be 467 jobs that would be in a more diverse area of the economy. Right now in Hope, about 24 percent of the workforce is in manufacturing, Harris said. Jobs in another economic sector would add to the diversity and to the long-term stability of the economy here.

Harris also said that in the Arkansas prison towns of Malvern and Newport, escape was a very rare event: “I know a lot of people are concerned about the crime outside the prison and, and just based on what we’ve found in Malvern and Newport, and it’s just very few escapes to start with. There have been two escapes out of the state prison in Newport. They have had 1,600 inmates up there in the last 19 years. No local person was affected by it. I asked the warden at Malvern. I think he’s been there for years. And he said they don’t have any escapes.”

For the last twenty minutes of the meeting, Judge Crane, Steve Harris and the Quorum Court heard from members of the audience about various concerns, including how the county would acquire the land that would be donated to the state for the purposes of building the prison on, what else needed to be done to attract businesses to provide employment here, and the extent of crime inside prisons. At times Justices of the Peace spoke of their openness to the citizens’ concerns, resolving to study the materials they had been given closely.  JP David Clayton said the situation was an object lesson in the need to be sure of the stances of those voted into state offices.

Before adjournment Judge Crane and Harris promised the audience that more opportunities for the public to speak on the matter would be scheduled soon.

After the meeting, Jess Marlow, Secretary/Treasurer of the Rural Community Alliance McCaskill/Blevins Chapter said about the meeting, “I think it went really well. Honestly. I got my mind changed a little bit. I came in kind of leaning for it, because I thought the jobs would be a good thing. And now I’m kind of leaning against it. Everybody had quite a few concerns. And I think they were really heard, though.”

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