Community diversion and re-entry programs rehabilitate offenders, save state tax dollars, and prevent mass incarceration. These programs help drug and non-violent offenders obtain treatment and get a job, rather than emerge from prison as hardened criminals. That much is clear.
It’s also clear that American Indians, compared to our non-native peers, are disproportionately imprisoned in Montana’s correctional system. Indeed, Native people constitute around 7 percent of Montana’s population but account for 21 percent of the state’s inmates. As legislators representing the majority of Montana’s Indian population, we work hard to find a balance in the law that keeps us safe and holds offenders accountable, while preventing mass incarceration and human rights abuses.
In light of the widely-reported human rights violations against Indian inmates, we were surprised during the recent special session to hear some of our Republican colleagues boast about the supposedly great management of the private prison in Shelby. This prison is operated by CoreCivic, previously known as Corrections Corporation of America, and is based in Tennessee. We know prison isn’t supposed to be a fancy vacation, but this corporation has a well-documented history of hiring inadequate staff, abusing inmates, and not cooperating with law enforcement during investigations.
In 2009, the Department of Corrections and governor’s office visited the Shelby prison seven times and conducted more than 40 interviews to investigate human rights abuses of Native American inmates. This investigation revealed that prison staff repeatedly antagonized Native inmates and violated their religious and human rights, including strip searching Native inmates attending sweat lodge ceremonies for three straight months. CoreCivic claimed that the searches were supposed to prevent contraband smuggling, but no contraband was ever found.
In fiscal year 2009, CoreCivic failed to address 206 of 220 formal inmate complaints. But despite all of this, many of our Republicans colleagues continue to support the prison pipeline and praise CoreCivic’s management of the Shelby prison.
Now, CoreCivic is holding $30 million of Montana taxpayer money hostage and will only return it to Montanans if its contract for the Shelby prison is renewed. Worst of all, Republicans are prioritizing the needs of this corporation over the best interests of Montanans. During the special session, they passed bills that put our state in an impossible position: either renew the prison contract or face even deeper cuts to critical health services that have already been implemented.
For our Montana communities, the false choice between a prison debilitating our people and further cuts to already underfunded programs is despicable.
Subsequently, the governor’s recent decision to walk away from negotiations with CoreCivic last week is a necessary one. The prison’s final offer included an almost 15 percent increase in the daily rate for our state, costing Montana more money while our other community providers of mental health and disability services were cut. The idea that we would raise rates for private prisons while being forced to cut rates for providers who deliver services to vulnerable Montanans borders on ludicrous.
We need real, long-term solutions to our state’s budget woes. We refuse to be held hostage by private prison companies who abuse prisoners and send our tax dollars to out-of-state corporate shareholders. Montana’s taxpayers can no longer afford mass incarceration. We can do better than CoreCivic.
During the next Legislative Session, we will again stand up for investing Montana’s resources into diversion programs here in Montana, as well as assisting Montana sheriffs and counties in addressing their unmet needs, rather than sending those valuable resources to Tennessee.
Montana American Indian Caucus:
Rep. Shane A. Morigeau, Sen. Lea Whitford, Rep. George Kipp III, Rep. Susan Webber, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, Sen. Frank Smith, Rep. Rae Peppers, and Rep. Bridget Smith.