Montana Lawmakers Propose Sending Up to 120 Inmates to Private Prison in Arizona

Amendment included in budget bill still in the works

By Blair Miller, Daily Montanan
The Montana State Capitol building in Helena. Beacon file photo

Montana lawmakers gave initial approval to a budget amendment this week that would allow the state to send up to 120 state prisoners to a privately run facility in Arizona operated by CoreCivic to the tune of nearly $8 million over the next two years.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 14-9 Tuesday to approve the amendment, which would provide one-time-only funds of $90 per day per inmate, around $3.9 million a year, toward the Department of Corrections to fund the contract with the private prison company in Fiscal Years 2024 and 2025.

“This is really the only option that we have to expand our capacity now,” said Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings.

The proposal comes as a way to try to find room for 280 prisoners awaiting transfer to prison, including in Deer Lodge, which lawmakers said is still facing capacity issues of its own. Mercer said further, the state’s violent crime rate continues to rise in Montana.

Mercer said the idea came about in a meeting with the Department of Corrections, which had been discussing other options to increase capacity.

“We did not come in and say, ‘Hey, you should do this,’” Mercer said. “We had to say to them – you’ve given us three thoughts, but there’s another one. And I think it’s pretty clear that they need this additional authority.”

Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, who sponsored the amendment, said sending prisoners to Arizona provided more immediate relief compared to other proposals on the table from DOC. The Montana State News Bureau first reported the amendment’s passage earlier this week.

Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, asked the committee why the state needed 120 beds out of state when there were around 110 beds that would be available in the next year or so through a community corrections initiative and prison expansion project.

Mercer explained that with 50 community corrections beds coming, there would still be 230 people awaiting placements after sentencing and even if more beds come online by the end of the year, there would still be 170 prisoners sitting in jails waiting to go to prison.

“This is all just the reality that we’re living in that is not something the state of Montana has typically been very good about. But we have an offender problem,” he said. “We have too many people who get convicted and sentenced and need to be in detention – it’s just a fact.”

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill in Deer Lodge on Wednesday raising correctional officer pay, and he has proposed putting $200 million toward repairs at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.

Gianforte said Thursday he was not surprised by the legislature’s decision to send prisoners out of state, but said the Deer Lodge repairs and expansion was the long-term solution to keep inmates in Montana. He said the Governor’s Office was not directly involved in the negotiation with CoreCivic.

“But it’s been clear, I’ve heard from [Montana Department of Corrections] Director Gootkin we’re just out of capacity,” the governor said of Director Brian Gootkin. “That’s why we’ve put $200 million into upgrading and expanding the capacity there in Deer Lodge.”

CoreCivic operates 112 facilities across the country, according to the company, including the Crossroads Correctional Center outside of Shelby. The company has five correctional centers in Arizona, in Florence and Eloy.

Lawmakers said they believed that only male prisoners, and typically those with longer sentences, would potentially be sent to Arizona, but that would be up to the DOC.

Kerr-Carpenter said she would vote against the amendment, saying it was moving “directly in the face of our rehabilitation efforts” and attempts to reduce recidivism in the state. She said prisoners having access to visits from family and friends helped reduce recidivism among prisoners.

Mercer told lawmakers on the committee that he couldn’t say exactly how facilitating visits might occur when prisoners are in Arizona.

“What I can tell you is that I think all these facilities try to do their best to give access between defendants and family,” he said.

Fitzpatrick called the measure “a good, temporary stopgap” and said lawmakers would have to revisit it in 2025 if the amendment passes the budget floor process and is signed into law in order to adjust it or extend the funding into the next biennium.

The Daily Montanan’s Nicole Girten contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.