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Montana inmates heading to Arizona private prison

Montana has inked a deal to send 120 state inmates to a private prison facility in Arizona, the Department of Corrections announced this week.

The shift, which officials say is necessary to relieve crowding in the state prison system, drew widespread debate during the 2023 legislative session as lawmakers wrestled over the most effective way to solve capacity issues at Montana's state facilities.

Already, Montana has moved 30 prisoners to Arizona under the terms of the state's existing roughly $8 million, two-year contract with CoreCivic, one of the country's main private prison companies, the Department of Corrections said.

Per the contract, executed on Nov. 13, the department will ultimately transfer up to 120 prisoners in its custody to CoreCivic's Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, at a rate of $90 per prison bed per day, through the end of October 2025. The department said no other vendors responded to its request for proposals.

The corrections department said the transfer will allow it to free up space at its main facilities, the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge and the Montana Women's Prison in Billings, both of which it says have been operating over capacity for more than a year. As of Thursday, 1,571 people were imprisoned at the state prison, which has an operational capacity of 1,526, and 246 people were incarcerated at the women's prison, which has a capacity of 240. Montana has an existing contract with CoreCivic to house inmates at the company's Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.

"This first transfer of inmates to the correctional facility in Eloy, Arizona went smoothly thanks to the hard work of everyone involved," Department of Corrections Director Brian Gootkin said in the department's announcement. "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."

Gootkin added that department officials evaluated the Saguaro facility to ensure the services available to inmates there are equivalent to those at state facilities in Montana, and that staff determined which individuals to transfer in the first round based on whether they wanted to volunteer to leave, their custody level, parole eligibility, health needs and participation in prison programming.

Legislative Democrats, who opposed the prison transfer concept during this year's session, released a statement this week blasting the contract.

"Montanans deserve to have their hard-earned tax dollars stay here at home protecting public safety, reducing recidivism, and solving the root causes of crime and substance use in our communities," Reps. Ryan Lynch and Donavon Hawk, both from Butte, said. "Instead, Governor Gianforte will be sending that money out-of-state to a private corporation with little to no oversight. The Administration must reverse course before it is too late and find solutions that invest in and protect Montana communities, not line the pockets of out-of-state hedge funds."

The contract allows for the state to access any CoreCivic records as necessary to ensure compliance. The state can terminate the contract if the company doesn't remedy any issues the state identifies within 30 days.

The funding for the transfer was authorized as part of House Bill 817, a so-called budget companion bill from this year's legislative session that, in addition to the prison transfer money, appropriated more than $200 million for various facility projects at state prisons in an effort to free up bed space. Prison crowding and its effects - particularly the practice of holding people convicted of felonies in county jails while they await placement at a state prison - was a major concern for lawmakers in charge of public safety spending this session.

Some of the key lawmakers involved, particularly Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, who chaired the budget subcommittee tasked with allocating public safety funds, and Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, who also sat on that committee, suggested at the time that the idea came from CoreCivic.

Mercer told his colleagues that CoreCivic had mentioned the possibility of a transfer to its Arizona facility during a tour with lawmakers prior to the session. He favored the idea, he said, because it created an immediate population release valve for the state prison without having to physically build more capacity, whether that meant repairs at the state prison or contracting with community corrections facilities throughout the state.

"This amendment is intended to give the department some flexibility to take people out of the [state prison] in Deer Lodge, as well as reduce the number of inmates that are currently held in county jails," Fitzpatrick told lawmakers during a March committee hearing. "This gets us bed space right now, or as soon as the ink on the bill is dry."

But the Department of Corrections never directly asked lawmakers to approve funding for the transfer. If anything, the department seemed to back away from the idea, instead presenting lawmakers with a slate of in-state options to provide more bed space and move incarcerated people out of county jails: 51 new community corrections beds, a 60-bed pre-release facility in Flathead County and the addition of a 68-bed treatment unit for sex offenders.

"Speaking with the governor's office and the budget office, right now we feel that working within our system is the first step to trying to alleviate - especially if we can get these people treatment instead of just housing them, that is a better step, we believe," Gootkin told lawmakers at a February hearing.

Gootkin added then that the state has had challenges with out-of-state prison transfers. During the administration of Gov. Marc Racicot, the state contracted with a private prison provider to send 258 inmates to a facility in Texas. But the arrangement ended following a breakdown in relations between the company and the state and allegations of poor conditions at the company's facility. (Some of those 258 inmates were subsequently transferred to a facility in Arizona operated by CoreCivic, which then called itself the Corrections Corporation of America).

Fitzpatrick, in March, sponsored an amendment to the Legislature's main budget bill that appropriated funding for the CoreCivic contract by name. Minority-party Democrats and even some fellow Republicans opposed the appropriation, questioning the need for an $8 million contract with an out-of-state private prison provider when new beds would soon come online. Critics also faulted the transparency of negotiations with the company and the propriety of setting aside a specific appropriation for a contract with a private corporation in statute, and argued sending inmates out of state and away from their communities would increase recidivism.

"Rather than just invest in solving the problems facing Montana workers and their families, Republicans chose a much different priority - writing checks for nearly $8 million for 150 Montana inmates to a private for-profit prison in Arizona, decreasing their chances of having successful reentry by losing connection with their families," Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said at the time. Caferro was the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

The proposal died and was repeatedly revived through parliamentary maneuvering. Ultimately, Fitzpatrick revised the language to remove a specific reference to CoreCivic and inserted it into a separate bill, HB 817, also sponsored by Fitzpatrick. Legislative appropriators who favored the transfer added contingency language to other bills that would void them if the transfer money wasn't authorized. The proposal, as a part of HB 817, ultimately passed.

CoreCivic heavily lobbied the Legislature, spending in excess of $25,000 over the course of the session, almost all on advocacy related to appropriations legislation, according to lobbying disclosures filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices.

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