By Sarah Whites-Koditschek
They sit in rows, 150 closely shaven men in yellow uniforms and white identification badges, before opposing walls, in a cinder-block walled gymnasium.
A selected group of four sit in plastic chairs forming a circle before their co-residents. Two stand up and shake hands, and the others say, “Squash it!” and clap.
These residents at Little Rock’s all-male Community Corrections Center have a daily ritual, a conflict resolution practice, meant to teach them interpersonal skills before they return to the real world.
With the fastest growing inmate population nationwide, Arkansas is joining a host of other states that are rethinking prison sentences to address overcrowding and projected high costs, and a nearly 52 percent recidivism rate.
This month Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law SB136, the Criminal Justice Safety and Efficiency Act, which would move low-level offenders and minor parole violators to community corrections centers for 45 to 180 days.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), says it will open up 1,600 beds in state prisons for more hardened criminals.
Members of the state prosecutors association took issue with early versions of the bill and opposed it in committee meetings this session. Among their arguments, only 500 beds might be made available.
The final legislation is the result of a two-year long task force and an outside review by the Council of State Government’s Center for Justice Reinvestment (CJR). It found a possible $250 million savings in six years could result from the policy change.
Existing community corrections centers statewide will be expanded to house more residents for shorter periods.
The centers currently provide tailored treatment for low-level offenders, those convicted of things like drug crimes, repeatedly writing bad checks or violating terms of their parole.
Parole and probation revocations make up the majority of inmate growth in prison. In 2015, they accounted for 52 percent of all admissions, according to research done by CJR. The group found half a billion dollars in corrections spending in Arkansas, with a projected $653 million construction cost to meet growth if unmitigated.
Benjamin Vestal, 26, has spent most of his life locked up for drug related crimes, fraud, theft, breaking and entering, and violating parole.
Prison is scary, he says. When you get there they ask where to send your body if anything happens.
“You can either be buried there or they can contact your family. And like, just, right then, you know, you’ve got to defend yourself. You’ve always got to be always looking over your back. It’s crazy.”
The center is a low-security residence with shared dorms, classrooms, and an open meeting space with cinder block walls.
Department of Community Corrections spokeswoman Dina Tyler says residents get therapy and classes to learn basic life skills.
“Some of these people come in here, and they honestly haven’t had any kind of structure in their life. Might have had an absent parent or two absent parents raised by some other family member,” she says.
The residents learn what it’s like to have structure. Their days are regimented by chores and classes from 4:30 a.m. or earlier until lights out at 10 p.m.
“They all have jobs. We run the kitchen, we run the laundry, we run everything. The housekeeping, all of the maintenance,” says Center Administrator Don Rissinger.
Tyler says prisons are too big and cash-strapped to offer that kind of programming which data shows can help people return to society with greater success and lower likelihood of ending up back behind bars.
According to Tyler, in 2015 the Little Rock Community Center had a recidivism rate of 28 percent, nearly half that of ADC.
Vestal was released from the center this month after serving a nine-month sentence for breaking and entering and theft. He had the chance to go there instead of prison and he took it.
Vestal says he healed some wounds from his childhood there.
And he’s got new ways to cope without drugs. He says he’s learned his warning signs and triggers for getting into trouble.
“I realize how to deal with things without being high. Like feelings, stress, with different temptations and anger issues. Like, you learn to deal with that sober.”
He’s been through this once before, in 2013.
But then his grandmother who raised him died. He got hooked back on drugs, spent his grandfather’s life savings and was back in prison 6 months after. He got out and then was sent to the correction center last year.
His family had cut him off, but with some help from correction center staff, he’s got them back in his life.
“My sister, still today, she said she’s still cleaning up my mess. I just, I had no care in the world, and now I do. My nephew, like, I want him in my life,” he says.
His sister has helped him find a job and place to live. She says she can see a change in his eyes. But she’s waiting for proof.
State lawmakers are hoping to see that change as well. The law also includes a provision to invest $5 million dollars in constructing several crisis stabilization units to preemptively address the projected 30 percent of inmates with mental health disorders.
The Justice Reinvestment Center says doing nothing could have meant a 19 percent prison population bump by 2023 or a 28 percent increase by 2026.
As of February, there were 17,911 in the prison system in the state, over its 15,205 capacity.
The legislation takes full effect in January of 2018.