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UPDATE: Protestors interrupt Gov. Asa Hutchinson address to object to prison expansion

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson looks up at demonstrators in the visitors gallery of the state House chamber Monday who disrupted his State of the State address by chanting "no new cages."

Groups opposed to a proposed expansion of a state prison at Calico Rock say they will hold a demonstration Monday at 11 a.m. on the steps of the state Capitol as a fiscal session of the legislature gets underway. Lawmakers will have to approve funding for the project at the North Central Unit which is estimated to cost between $60 million and $100 million.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced his support for the expansion last Thursday which would add nearly 500 beds at the prison. But two groups organizing Monday’s protest say the money could be better spent on things like pretrial services, creating more community based mental health facilities, additional funding for drug and alcohol treatment programs, and making sure there is adequate funding for public defenders so that they have reasonable caseloads based on recommendations by the American Bar Association.

Decarcerate Arkansas and the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition have released a joint statement against the proposal which was approved last Tuesday by the Arkansas Board of Corrections.

KUAR News spoke with Decarcerate Director Zachary Crow on Friday. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

The governor says this is needed given projections for inmate population growth in the next decade. Why do you feel this is the wrong approach?

ZACHARY CROW: I think those projections are just taken as a given and so there's not been any real good faith effort, in my estimation, to address this legislatively. I think there's a lot we could be doing to address this on a policy level. There are lots of ways that we can be reducing our prison population that wouldn't affect public safety in any way, and those possibilities have been ignored for too long. So my hope is that we can continue to find ways to get people out of jail, out of prisons, out of cages, instead of what this plan will do, which is move us in the opposite direction.

I’m going to play a cut from the governor. He said he's always looking for ways to improve the criminal justice system but said that there are career criminals.

GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON (from Thursday’s press conference): We are growing as a state in population and obviously at some point you have to continue the increase of prison space, making sure that our violent criminals have adequate time in prison, that they're punished adequately and the public is safeguarded. But we also always are looking at our non-violent offenders, whether we're getting that right.

Do you think the state is taking enough steps for non-violent offenders or alternatives to locking people up?

CROW: I don't. I think there are ways we could reduce the prison population by 3,000 today very easily through things like compassionate release, addressing nonviolent drug offences, and so I don't think those things are being done on a policy level and hope to see that change.

In the statement you released, you note that the plan calls for the prison to create more two-man cells or one-man cells rather than the typical barracks style where you have maybe 60 people in a large cell. What's the effect on inmates when they're kept in two-man cells or in isolation?

We heard that from Board of Correction’s Chairman Benny Magnus, at a meeting on Tuesday, saying that part of what was driving this excessive cost was that they were looking to create more isolation cells. They said that they were doing this to address violence within the prison, but two things come up for me that I think counter that claim. One, Decarcerate, where I work, issued a report at the beginning of the year that used Arkansas Department of Corrections data to show that over 90% of people in solitary confinement are there for non-violent interactions. People in solitary confinement, we know, can quickly deteriorate mentally, physically, socially. The United Nations has recognized solitary confinement as a form of torture, as well as several other human-rights groups, and so, while we oppose any additional beds, the fact that those are isolation cells is particularly alarming.

The plan to expand the Calico Rock facility will need legislative approval. Are you planning to lobby lawmakers or take any steps to try and sway opinions at that level?

Yeah, absolutely. We got to work pretty quickly when we heard this news. It's my hope that we'll have several folks there in person on Monday when they go into session, that folks will be calling the governor and their state legislators about this matter over the weekend and into next week. I hope to see folks there at the Capital when this starts up on Monday.

UPDATE FEB. 15, 2022:

A demonstration was held as planned Monday on the steps of the state Capitol. Later, during Gov. Hutchinson’s State of the State address on Monday, protesters interrupted the governor with chants of “no new cages” after Hutchinson mentioned his support for the prison expansion.

Arkansas state legislators began to clap loudly in order to drown out the chants. Arkansas Capitol Police then began escorting the protestors out of the building as a unit until the protestors exited the building at the tunnel underneath the Capitol steps.

Some protestors then responded by yelling not to be touched and threatening to spit on officers who touched them. A press release from Decarcerate Arkansas and the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition claimed the incident lead to numerous injuries and three arrests.