Person holding bars of a prison cell
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The House Tuesday voted to concur with Senate amendments to House Bill 817, keeping alive a roughly $8 million biennial appropriation for the Department of Corrections to contract for 120 out-of-state prison beds. 

Previous language in the bill specifically set aside the money to contract with private prison company CoreCivic for 120 beds at one of its Arizona facilities, which proponents presented as a solution to crowding in the  state’s prison system. 

Last week, though, the Senate Finance and Claims Committee took the CoreCivic name out of the bill through a unanimous voice vote with little explanation. Critics had previously questioned whether the Legislature could write the name of a private company in statute — and moreover, whether expanding the state’s contract with CoreCivic through legislation was necessary.

“We’re taking CoreCivic’s name out of the statute, but we’re essentially putting the same dollar amount and the same demand for prison beds that we haven’t been shown we need,” Butte Democratic Sen. Ryan Lynch told his colleagues on the Senate Finance and Claims Committee during its meeting April 27. 

“Well, several of us think we need it, Senator, but they can contract with Utah or anybody, with any other state,” responded Sen. Jon Esp, R-Big Timber, who chairs the committee.

HB 817 is not the first vehicle for the prison funding. Earlier in the session, the money was inserted into House Bill 2, the Legislature’s primary budget vehicle, in the House Appropriations Committee.

That proposal was controversial from the onset, with opponents pointing to other means of adding bed space in the short — if not immediate — term that wouldn’t require sending incarcerated Montanans out of state. CoreCivic has spent more than $25,000 lobbying in the Montana Capitol this session.

Even the Department of Corrections backed away from the idea, presenting lawmakers with a slate of local 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,” Department of Corrections Director Brian Gootkin said.

The appropriation for the CoreCivic money was taken out of HB 2. But lawmakers in favor of acquiring the new beds — which include the influential House Appropriations Committee chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad, and Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, who chairs the budget subcommittee in charge of criminal justice — insisted that the options proposed by the Department of Corrections would take too long. The appropriation was revived and killed a number of times before finding its way into HB 817. 

Lawmakers keep passing bills that increase criminal penalties, Jones told reporters last month, and that necessitates more prison space. Somewhere between 250 and 290 people are held in county jails awaiting placement in either prison or a community corrections facility. Those jail holds cost money and offer little in the way of programming — substance abuse treatment, counseling and so on. It’s also a good deal, he said: $95 per bed each day, available immediately, in blocks of 120, including transportation costs.

“People don’t necessarily like for-profit style prisons … They’ve got to be competitive,” Jones said. 

Lawmakers also appeared to have taken one of the options presented by the Department of Corrections off the table as a justification for the CoreCivic funding. In the last few days of session, a conference committee struck funding for the pre-release center in the Flathead. When Democrats subsequently tried to remove the CoreCivic money, Esp responded that in light of that previous action, the 120 beds were now even more necessary. 

“I think with the action we took earlier in this committee by removing the possibility of building pre-release going forward in the Flathead area might make the beds in HB 817 even more important,” he said.

The addition of the CoreCivic money into HB 817 was poorly received by Lynch and other Democrats. 

“The department never asked for this, and all of a sudden we’re going to let the Republicans shove this down Montana’s throat,” Lynch told the Senate Finance and Claims Committee in April. “We’re celebrating locking up more people and sending them out of state.”

Among other criticisms, Lynch noted that the appropriation hardly fits within the short title of the bill: “Provide for capital projects.” And unless the department is going to use the money to buy or construct a building, it would seem that contracting for 120 prison beds is not a capital project.

Taking the name “CoreCivic” out doesn’t make it better, he told Montana Free Press Wednesday, when the details of the appropriation are the exact same either way. 

“They’re gonna tell you that they looked around for the best deals,” Lynch said. “But it’s interesting to me that it’s the same number of beds and the same dollar amount.”

House lawmakers took their final vote in favor of the bill Tuesday evening, not long before they adjourned sine die. The bill will soon head to the governor’s desk for his consideration. The department isn’t obligated to spend the money under the bill, so how and when it handles the transfer is unclear. 


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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.