Legislative Audit: Job and Educational Programs at Montana Prisons are Underutilized and Poorly Administered 

Almost 80% of inmates in the audit indicated they had never met with prison staff to discuss career or educational goals

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Montana Free Press
The Montana State Capitol in Helena. Beacon file photo

Lawmakers on Tuesday grilled officials from the Montana Department of Corrections following a recent legislative audit that identified a myriad of shortcomings in the department’s educational and work training programs at state prisons. 

The audit, conducted through surveys at four facilities between 2020 and 2022, identified low participation in education and training programs despite inmates’ high interest, a gulf between the training offered and workforce needs, gaps in data collection and spotty enforcement of the state’s agreements with private prisons to provide reentry programming to inmates. 

Among the most glaring findings: The department could not explain why only a fraction of inmates interested in educational programs were being accepted into the programs — despite ample capacity. 

“I was pretty disappointed when I read the report because we have been going through a lot of these issues for at least three and a half years,” Rep. Fiona Nave, R-Columbus, told Department of Corrections officials during Tuesday’s meeting of the Legislative Audit Committee. “I’m not getting results. I’m getting we’re working on it. Some of this education information that we need, public schools do this every day. This is pretty easy data to manage.” 

The audit’s roots lie in a suite of 2017 state legislation collectively known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, designed to reduce recidivism and prison crowding while improving data collection. In 2021, lawmakers passed a resolution calling for an audit of the prison system’s implementation of the initiative. 

Auditors surveyed 2,380 current inmates at four facilities — Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, Montana Women’s Prison in Billings, the privately run Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby, and the contracted Dawson County Correctional Center — interviewed department staff and stakeholders, and compared job training programming with data about the state’s labor needs. 

The audit division compiled existing research showing that recidivism rates for inmates who participate in education or career readiness programs — high-school or GED prep, higher education, vocational training and so on — are between 28% and 32% lower than for those who don’t. Auditors cited a Rand Corporation study that asserted every $1 spent on education programs in prisons reduces incarceration costs by $5

But of the Montana inmates auditors surveyed, almost 80% indicated they had never met with prison staff to discuss career or educational goals. Almost 60% said they felt the job training programs in the prison system don’t prepare them for life on the outside. And more than 80% said it’s difficult to access both higher education and vocational training programs. Inmates said it was easiest to enroll in high school diploma equivalency training, and even then, 31% of the respondents said it was difficult to access such programming. 

The audit identified pervasive gaps in data collection about educational and job training programs, including a lack of centralized tracking of programs, inconsistent enrollment monitoring and generally inaccurate data entry. For example, despite a “significant interest by inmates,” only a fraction of applicants were accepted into federally funded higher education programs despite available capacity. The department could not determine why. 

Two of the higher education programs will be discontinued after the current cohort graduates, including the only such program available at Shelby’s Crossroads Correctional Facility, a private prison run by Core Civic. 

Indeed, the audit identified particular issues at the state’s two contracted facilities, Crossroads and the Dawson County Correctional Center. 

“Neither contracted facility has fulfilled obligations to provide education and training to state inmates for much of the past three years,” the audit reads. 

The state’s contract with Crossroads, the audit continues, requires that 90% of inmates are able to participate in job training or educational opportunities, but only 40% have done so between 2020 and 2022. The state has not enforced these contract provisions, leaving more than $100,000 in fines on the table in 2021 alone, according to the audit. 

Auditors made several recommendations to the department: that it formalize its tracking of these programs, develop new opportunities that better match the needs of the workforce, team up with the state Department of Labor and Industry, and enforce the education-related provisions of its contracts with the private prison and Dawson County facility. 

Department officials agreed with the audit’s recommendations. On Tuesday, Department of Corrections Director Brian Gootkin noted that the period of the audit coincided with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said contributed to some of the department’s shortcomings. 

“Not only was the world shut down, but so was our prison system,” he said. 

Gootkin and other department officials told lawmakers that the department has already begun implementing some of the audit’s recommendations. 

Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamiltion, who chairs the audit committee, told department officials he expects to see them back before the committee in six months with evidence of improvement and a plan to further develop workforce and educational programming. 

“I think we’re all concerned with this audit,” he said. “We’re concerned for the citizens of Montana.” 

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.