Governor Hutchinson supports more prison beds; says COVID deaths will soon reach 10,000

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday, Feb. 10, he would push for a plan estimated at $60 million to $100 million to add 498 prison beds to the state’s prison system. The funds would come from the state budget surplus and must be approved by the Arkansas Legislature, he said.

The governor said during his weekly press briefing that Arkansas’ prison system has seen an “artificial decline” in prison population due to COVID-19, but projections show prison growth of 1.4% per year in the years to come. He also said the state needs to do more to relieve the number of state prisoners currently being held in county jails.

A proposed 498-bed expansion of the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) North Central Unit near Calico Rock has been approved by the Board of Corrections. Gov. Hutchinson said he supports the recommendation and will seek approval for the expansion when the Arkansas Legislature convenes for the state’s tax legislative session. This session starts on February 14.

“We want this on the table ‘at the start of the budget session,'” Governor Hutchinson said.

The amount of funding is uncertain as architectural, construction and other details are not yet known, but Governor Hutchinson said the expansion will not exceed $100 million. CDA Secretary Solomon Graves said if the plan is funded, construction could begin in the first half of 2023.

Continued gains in sales tax revenue helped drive Arkansas’ tax revenue up 5.9% year-to-date (July 2021 to January 2022), resulting in a surplus of 231 $.2 million for the state above budget expectations, according to a February 2 report of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (DFA). Arkansas ended fiscal year 2021 (July 2020 – June 2021) with a revenue surplus of $945.7 million, due in part to the COVID-19-induced change in a June tax filing deadline to January which pushed back some of the fiscal year 2020 income tax payments to 2021.

The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) on Thursday reported 1,825 new known cases in the past 24 hours, bringing the cumulative total to 802,198. Known active cases fell by 2,790 to 24,274, considerably less than 101,141 on January 21, when known active cases first exceeded 100,000.

Hospitalizations for COVID fell by 66 to 1,285. The number of patients on ventilators fell by 5 to 186 and deaths increased by 10 to 9,937. Known deaths Thursday were up 7.5% from the 9,248 as of January 4. Available intensive care beds totaled 37 in Thursday’s report, up from 34 on Wednesday, according to the ADH report.

Governor Hutchinson said while active cases are down, deaths are a lagging indicator and will continue to rise.

“Unfortunately, our deaths continue to rise, and it won’t be many days before we hit the 10,000 mark in terms of Arkansans who died from COVID,” he said.

The ADH data also showed that 82.4% of deaths and 81.3% of hospitalizations were among unvaccinated people.