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Blevins residents oppose prison locating in area

By John Miller, 03/14/23 2:57 PM

BLEVINS – Not in my backyard was the general consensus of Blevins residents at a public meeting concerning a planned prison.

The meeting, Monday night, began at the Blevins City Hall, but moved to the Word of Faith church when city hall couldn’t handle the capacity crowd.

Kathie Woll, who spearheaded the information gathering about the proposed prison, told those attending she was there to share what she knew, but would prefer is someone else would take over the protests. She said there’s a petition at the post office stating those who sign are opposed to a prison being built in the Blevins area and people need to sign it to let elected officials know where they stand.

Woll said she gathered information from newspapers and from listening to the Hempstead County Quorum Court and other media outlets in the area. There are two different size prisons being discussed. One is a 1,000 bed maximum security prison. This one was the focus of attention. Woll said the state would require 400 acres, and this would create 370 jobs. The other is a 250 bed minimum security prison for those inmates transitioning from prison to life in the world. This one would require 40 acres and create 90 jobs.

She said, according to the state, the annual payroll of the prison would be $21 million and it would take between two and 2.5 years to build, depending on when the money’s available. At this time, this is an unfunded project at the state level. In addition, she said Hempstead County was the only county to submit a proposal for the prison this legislative session. She continued, saying there are also two sites in the Guernsey area being considered.

Woll said the state is requiring the land to be donated, which means the county will have to buy the land and give it to the state. She added Nevada County is expected to pay for 25 percent of the costs.

The site in Blevins is on Hwy. 371 in the area of the Sweet Home Church, while the property in Guernsey are the Conley and Dickerson Farms. There also a site owned by Potlatch and Nordic Timber in Guernsey. The prison can’t be located within 1/4 mile of a church, school, business or residence, must be on a paved road with access to all utilities and infrastructure. It also needs to be close to an adequate hospital, she said, or trauma center, but the question is what does the state consider adequate. “We don’t know what checklist the state’s using,” she said.

The state, she continued, will also need an employable workforce, with the unemployment rate in Hempstead County at the end of 2022 being 3 percent. “I’m concerned about how the community will change,” she said, “and what it will cost in taxes.” She pointed out residents can to to the Quorum Court meeting on March 30, but to speak they need to get on the agenda soon.

According to Woll, Eighth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Ben Hale has said he’s concerned about the number of lawyers in the area as crimes committed inside the prison must be dealt with locally with the county having to both prosecute and defend those involved. She added, the Hempstead County Sheriff’s Office has voiced concerns about deputies being poached to work at the prison for higher pay.

Hannah Humphrey followed saying she’s done research on this and how the state’s only showing the positives of the prison, but none of the negatives. She urged residents to call Rep. Danny Watson and State Sen. Steve Crowell to let them know what they think of the issue. She suggested reminding these elected officials who put them in office and they can easily be replaced.

According to Humphrey, less than 20 percent of the prison jobs would be filled by local residents, as others would have to be brought in to fill the need. She also suggested people showing up at the QC meeting on March 30 at 5:30 p.m. en masse to let the court know where they stand.

Justice of the Peace Keith Steed told the audience what he knew, saying Watson had said during the session Gov. Sarah Sanders said she wants five 1,000 bed maximum prisons and a like number of minimum security ones over the next 10-15 years. The first one, he said, hasn’t been funded yet but has been discussed. Steed added Sanders also wants mental health facilities in the smaller prison.

Watson, he said, went straight to officials with the City of Hope from the session and formed a committee, made up of Mark Ross, Steve Atchley, Watson, Steve Harris, Akili Israel, Russell Cornelius and Steve Lance, to try and find the land. “The county doesn’t own any land, it would have to be bought and the county won’t buy any land. The county doesn’t have the money to buy any land and the county isn’t planning on paying for a prison.”

The location in the Blevins area, he said, is at Redland Farm, which has no utilities or infrastructure in place, so other locations were sought and found in the Gurnsey area.

Steed said there will be doctors and nurses at each of these prisons, and they can’t be within 60 miles of an existing prison with the nearest one being in Malvern. He pointed out Hempstead County wasn’t the only county to submit a proposal for the prison as two other counties did as well.

He continued, saying the 1,000 bed prison isn’t a maximum security facility. “I’m telling you what I’ve been told.”

Woll said there’s a lot of frustration because of this because people think it’s something the state’s trying to slip by them.

Emily Wood suggested people call their state officials and respectfully let them know where they stand on the issue. She gave Watson’s phone number, 870-703-5524 and email address, Danny.Watson@arkansas.gov, along with Crowell’s information. His phone number is 870-557-3440, email is steve.crowell@senate.Ar..gov, while his address is P.O. Box 352, Magnolia, Ar 71754.
“They should hear our voices,” she said.

Wood said the three main areas Sanders is focusing on is education, prison and tax cuts, but if tax cuts are made, the first two can’t be done.