County jails used to be just stopovers for inmates headed to state prisons. But as Arkansas’ state facilities have reached capacity, jails are increasingly being used to hold prisoners long term. According to the Arkansas Department of Corrections, there are 2,705 people in county jails awaiting beds in state prisons. In August, Arkansas set a record for the number of inmates under state jurisdiction: 19,055, or 3,000 more inmates than manageable capacity, according to lawmakers who have studied the system. The lack of space and a growing prison population has strained resources and put pressure on all levels of the penal system. And in recent years, the unhappy effects of that pressure have begun to show.
While lawsuits over incarceration conditions have declined overall in the U.S., new data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University, shows that something entirely different is happening in Arkansas. In 2015 eastern Arkansas had the most filings in federal court of any U.S. region, and the number of suits filed increased by more than 30 percent compared with five years earlier. The western district of Arkansas is not far behind: A year ago, it ranked 10th nationally; this year it is third.
Magness from the Arkansas Department of Corrections says he “[does] not see an issue with how the staff treats inmates.” Rather, he was more concerned with “how inmates are treating staff … We have instances every day where inmates throw feces and urine on staff members … [Staffers] do a very good job of restraining themselves.”