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Hutchinson signs bill turning ex-lockup into veterans center

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A defunct correctional facility in southeastern Arkansas will be transformed into a re-entry hub for military veterans under a measure Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law.

The bill authorizes the Arkansas Department of Community Correction, with approval from the Board of Corrections and governor, to donate the Southeast Arkansas Community Corrections Center in Pine Bluff to an Arkansas-based nonprofit that serves ex-armed service members.

“We’re all proud of our veterans,” Hutchinson said before signing the legislation Wednesday, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. “We want to do everything we can to support veterans who may be suffering.”

The agency has been negotiating with Veteran Villages of America. The nonprofit aims to transform the 52-acre, 350-bed facility into a veteran’s center that provides vocational training, mental health treatment and temporary housing. The Department of Community Correction intends to send some of the roughly 1,300 veterans in their custody to the facility once it’s functioning.

John Garrett, a senior defense policy analyst at Squire Patton Boggs, the Washington, D.C.-based law and lobbying firm representing Veterans Villages, said the concept is first taking hold in Arkansas because of the “selfless grit” of Veterans Villages.

Garrett said he expects other states to open similar facilities for veterans in the coming year.

“They’re a huge population of trained, smart and talented people,” Garrett said. “They can contribute to society. If some need some help, we should help them along.”

Rep. Kenneth Ferguson, of Pine Bluff, said revamping the former correctional facility would economically benefit the region.

“It’s a big deal,” Ferguson said. “We lost a lot of jobs several years ago. This will help replace a lot of those jobs. But it’s not only about jobs, but also a better situation for veterans.”

Rep. Dwight Tosh, the bill’s sponsor, said the transfer is projected to save the state around $200,000 in yearly maintenance costs.

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