Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. (Provided by the Montana Department of Corrections.)
The Montana Department of Corrections inked a $7.9 million deal this week with private prison company CoreCivic to house 120 inmates for the next two years – and the first 30 inmates are already in Arizona.
The hot-button deal was a contentious portion of 2023 infrastructure and criminal justice legislation.
The Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge has been above capacity for more than one year, and the 2023 legislature approved House Bill 817 to renovate the facility as part of its long-term solution.
The Department of Corrections said the contract is part of an investment from the state into corrections, including Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s proposal for $228 million in infrastructure at the state prison to in part increase safety and capacity.
As part of a shorter-term fix, HB 817 included a $3.94 million annual appropriation during the next two years for 120 contracted prison beds to alleviate crowding in Montana.
However, sentencing experts have noted policies being implemented by Montana, such as longer mandatory minimums for fentanyl convictions, also contribute to chronically bursting prisons.
The prison in Deer Lodge has a capacity of 1,526 but was as full as 1,585 earlier this month, according to data from the Department of Corrections.
In a news release Thursday, the Department of Corrections said 30 inmates were transported on Tuesday to CoreCivic’s Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona as part of an effort to relieve crowding.
“This first transfer of inmates to the correctional facility in Eloy, Arizona, went smoothly thanks to the hard work of everyone involved,” said Department of Corrections Director Brian Gootkin in a statement Thursday.
“By freeing up this space at MSP, the DOC can more effectively manage inmate populations in our facilities and jails around the state, better ensuring improved safety and security for the public.”
CoreCivic is a for-profit prison operator that bills itself as one of the largest in the U.S. with 67 facilities — correctional and detention facilities and reentry centers — and 80,000 beds, according to data from its most recent SEC report.
In Montana, CoreCivic operates the Crossroads Correctional Center outside Shelby with 765 inmates on Thursday, also over its 753-person capacity.
The contract between the Montana DOC and CoreCivic notes a cost of $90 per bed per day, equivalent to the terms outlined in HB 817. The money includes transportation, food, clothing, education and medical care, according to the contract.
According to Gootkin, the services available to inmates at CoreCivic’s Saguaro Correctional Center are comparable to what is available in Montana facilities, including for health care, communication with families and friends, and educational and vocational training.
During the legislative session, opponents of sending inmates outside Montana worried the lack of contact with family and legal counsel ran contrary to attempts to reduce recidivism.
However, proponents said the proposal was a temporary albeit necessary solution to a simple math problem of facility overcapacity.
The Department of Corrections said inmates were selected to be moved based on several factors, including whether they wanted to volunteer for it, their custody level, proximity to parole eligibility (more than two years), and their health and mental health needs.
The Saguaro Correctional Facility has 1,986 beds and inmates from Hawaii and Idaho, according to the SEC report.
The contract states the initial transfer of 40 inmates to the proposed facility will take place within 14 days of the contract being signed, and another two groups of 40 may be transferred incrementally afterwards based on the needs of Montana.
The Department of Corrections said for security’s sake, it will not address when future transfers will occur. The contract allows inmates to be relocated to other CoreCivic facilities with approval from the state, but so far, Montanans will be going only to Saguaro.
“The DOC has no plans to move inmates to a facility other than Saguaro at this time,” said DOC spokesperson Carolynn Stocker in an email.
A construction timeline for the prison in Deer Lodge is underway and expected to be developed by December. Just last month, 51 people incarcerated there spent five days without heat after a system breakdown.
This legislative session, lawmakers assigned the House Bill 5 Select Committee to review corrections facility capacity and development and provide recommendations for the 2025 Montana Legislature.
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