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Prison Brings Freedom to Arkansas Town

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A thousand criminals will descend on this small town 25 miles from the Mississippi River. Folks couldn’t be happier.

“The morale around here,” Mayor Danny Ferguson exulted, “is as high as I’ve ever seen it.”

What everybody is so pleased about is that after several plant closings, hundreds of layoffs and 34 straight months of having the worst unemployment rate in Arkansas, Forrest City has attracted a large, stable employer: a 1,000-bed minimum- and medium-security federal prison complex. Better yet, it could triple in size.

“Even a single facility will absolutely stabilize the economy,” Ferguson said.

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At a public hearing, only two people out of 375 criticized the plan, the mayor said, recalling one supporter’s comments. The woman had been laid off and was on welfare, studying criminology at a community college.

“She’d already resigned herself to the fact that once she got her degree, she’d have to move,” Ferguson said. Now she could stay. “We couldn’t have written a script better than that,” he said.

The prison is one of three that the U. S. Bureau of Prisons announced in March will be built, pending environmental impact studies, in the Delta. The others are planned for Yazoo City, Miss., and Pollock, La.

The announcement followed a call in a 1990 report by the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission to direct planned federal spending--such as prison construction--to the nation’s poorest region.

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The Forrest City facility would employ 250, and economic impact could be several times the payroll alone. “Conservatively, I’d say $30 million,” said Perry Webb, the local chamber of commerce executive director who was at first skeptical about the Delta Commission.

“When I first heard they were going to spend ‘X’ million dollars to study the Delta, I thought . . . ‘They’ll find out something we knew 30 years ago.’ To some extent, they did,” Webb said.

But the report’s revelations of shocking poverty, neglected education and deaths from preventable illness got Washington’s attention.

“That awareness is invaluable. You can’t put a price on it. That awareness is what brought us this prison,” Webb said.

Plans for the prison already have made JoAnn Daniel’s job a little easier. A supervisor in Forrest City’s unemployment office, she has seen the tear-streaked faces behind local jobless rates that reached 27%. The rate is around 16% now.

“At this point, anything is a relief. Any time there is more than one job opening, it is a relief to me,” she said. “And it gives people some hope.”


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