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Montana sends first group of inmates to Arizona

Posted at 6:56 PM, Nov 16, 2023

HELENA — The Montana Department of Corrections announced Thursday that they’ve transferred 30 inmates to a prison facility in Arizona – the first step in a plan intended to reduce overcrowding at Montana State Prison.

During the 2023 legislative session, Montana lawmakers voted to spend $7.9 million over the next two years to move 120 inmates to an out-of-state facility. This week, DOC confirmed they had finalized a contract with the private prison operator CoreCivic to transfer the inmates to the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona – roughly halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.

“This first transfer of inmates to the correctional facility in Eloy, Arizona went smoothly thanks to the hard work of everyone involved,” said DOC director Brian Gootkin in a news release. “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 already contracts with the state, managing the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby. The spending provision that authorized this contract initially named CoreCivic specifically, but lawmakers removed that reference, and the final bill said only that the $7.9 million would be used “to contract for 120 prison beds.” State leaders said they went through an open request for proposals process before selecting CoreCivic as their final contract partner.

In their statement announcing the move, DOC leaders said they selected which inmates would be transferred based on whether they wanted to volunteer, and on things like their custody level, health and mental health needs, participation in treatment and other programs, and how close they are to parole eligibility. The department said inmates transferred to Arizona would have access to services comparable to what would be available at a Montana facility.

In a news release, CoreCivic said the contract will initially run through Oct. 31, 2025, and can be extended by mutual agreement, but that the total term cannot exceed seven years. The company said they expected to receive all of the Montana inmates by the end of December.

DOC says both Montana State Prison and the Montana Women’s Prison have been operating beyond capacity for more than a year. Leaders said that overcrowding has also had a trickle-down impact on local jails, as the department hasn’t been able to move inmates out and into prison space as quickly as expected.

“It's really crucial that we figure out a way to deal with this,” said Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings. “We may have longer-term goals to build additional prison capacity in Montana – we've got to solve this right now. So acquiring these beds allows us to free up space in the local detention facilities, which will create a much better situation. If someone today in the police department encounters someone who has an arrest warrant, hopefully they will be able to have a place for them in the local detention facility.”

Mercer said it still remains to be seen whether the Legislature will extend this agreement in 2025, but that, if it appears to be a more efficient option than expanding prison capacity within the state, leaders will at least need to consider it.

Democrats in the Legislature criticized the agreement for directing public money out of state and to a private company, and they said it would give Montana leaders less chance for oversight.

“When we send people out of state, particularly adults, we don't have the same control and oversight over what we're doing,” said Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings. “It comes down to oversight and where the buck stops, and that's the problem with this. I mean, these are Montanans, you know?”

Kerr-Carpenter said the state previously contracted to send inmates out of state years ago, and it went badly. She said moving the inmates would be disruptive for them and their families, and she questioned how much of an immediate impact it would have on local detention facilities.

Kerr-Carpenter said she hoped leaders would end the agreement after the first two years, but she believed that probably would not happen.

Mercer said critics of the agreement hadn’t been able to show an alternative to address the overcrowding issue immediately.

“During the session, we said we've got to focus on how we're going to protect the public – and we don't have the ability to construct new bed space in Montana right now,” he said. “So this is a viable alternative, today – with, it ends up, CoreCivic who won the contract – that's a vendor that we have a lot of understanding of their ability, based upon the fact they've been in Shelby operating that prison for years.”

Kerr-Carpenter said she believed the issue needed to have been addressed long ago, and that stakeholders at all levels of the justice system would need to be involved in a broader solution.

“From the local municipalities to county detention centers, the community providers – so our Alpha House here in Billings, and Passages and those folks – and then the Department of Corrections and also the Board of Pardons and Parole – if everybody had come together and really talked about, ‘How are we going to cohesively manage this system, how are we going to cohesively manage where we are putting people once they are picked up, every step of the way,’ I think we could have we could have avoided this a long time ago,” she said.