by Jayson Hawkins
The private prison industry has been under fire recently across the country—from lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to federal policies mandating a slow and unsteady move away from for-profit prisons to scandals arising from inhumane conditions and rampant sexual assaults.
Feeling the heat from that fire—and with its flames fanned by a six-month grassroots lobbying campaign of the ACLU—Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) initially shied away from renewing the state’s contract with CoreCivic to operate Crossroads Correctional Center (CCC), a 664-bed prison located near the town of Shelby in the state’s remote Hi-Line region (named for being adjacent to the northernmost railway in the country.).
CoreCivic, the giant firm ($1.91 billion revenue in 2020) formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, is one of the largest for-profit prison operators in the country, and it has often found itself at the center of controversy. In fact, it is seen by many social justice advocates as a poster child for all that is wrong with the American criminal justice system, so the governor’s initial decision drew praise.
But on July 28, 2021, Bullock made an about-face and announced he was renewing the state’s contract with CoreCivic to hold state prisoners in CCC. The reason? Money, of course. CoreCivic controls a $34 million fund, filled from a portion of the state’s rent payments, that was designed to allow Montana to buy back the prison one day. In exchange for the latest two-year contract extension, though, the firm agreed to give the money back to the state now.
Not long after the renewal, however, problems surfaced at CCC that again raised questions about the viability of for-profit prisons in the state.
The ink was barely dry on the new CoreCivic contract when a water shortage hit the reservoir that feeds both Shelby and the prison on July 30, 2021. Public works officials scrambled to make plans to drill new wells, but while they were coming online, the town was left with little water and the prison had none at all for three days.
Spokespeople from both the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and CoreCivic provided assurances that bottled water was being provided to prisoners and that portable toilets were available as well. But a prisoner who spoke to the Montana State News Bureau during the three-day crisis reported that the supply of bottled water was inadequate and that prison toilets were overflowing with human waste because the promised portable toilets had failed to appear.
Temporary water problems are common at prisons located in rural areas with limited infrastructure, and extensive problems inevitably add fuel to the already combustible conditions in any prison. It should have been no surprise to officials at CCC when those conditions boiled over several days into the water shut-off.
On August 2, 2021, two prisoners were arguing with guards over their continued inability to remove fecal matter from their living area when a fight broke out, leaving three guards hospitalized. The DOC says it is investigating that incident.
That same day water was restored to CCC, but the inability of CoreCivic to provide consistent necessities and basic security remains a point of contention with the Montana ACLU and other social justice advocates.
So far, the new deal has not garnered much attention or controversy from any other quarters. The main sticking points in the contract revolved around how CoreCivic would move federal prisoners held at CCC under contract from federal agencies as they were transferred in a prisoner swap with Great Falls Regional Prison (GFRP).
That lockup is run by Cascade County, so the U.S. Marshals Service saw an opportunity to shift about 90 of its prisoners there from CCC and comply with a Biden administration directive to wind down federal use of private prisons. In exchange DOC will bring about 150 prisoners to CCC from GFRP, a population increase that will require some remodeling, including the conversion of some cells to hold three men.
The deal also includes an increase in the per diem rate CoreCivic receives for housing prisoners from $71 to $79. Compared to the $104 a day it costs DOC to house prisoners at the Montana State Prison (MSP) near Deer Lodge, even the higher rate looked like a bargain for the state. Of course, CoreCivic cherry picks the prisoners it houses so the state gets to keep the sick and elderly ones with the most expensive medical conditions and also the highest security classifications.
According to DOC, the higher cost at MSP reflects additional spending on health care for the prisoners held there. That’s because the prisoners that CoreCivic holds are healthier because its contracts routinely exclude prisoners with serious or chronic health issues. But Montana DOC Director Brian Godtkin did not seem inclined to question the minutia of the deal.
“If we’re doing $79 a day, and they’re doing everything we need them to, then why not?” he asked.
In answer is an ACLU statement protesting the company’s original 2017 contract with the state: “Instead of being leaders in criminal justice reform, our highest elected officials are shaking hands with an industry that warehouses their constituents in facilities without proper medical care and subjects them to racial discrimination, physical abuse, religious discrimination, and unchecked sexual assault.” Typically campaign donations, lobbying and old fashioned cronyism tend to decide how these private prison contracts are doled out.
Sources: ACLU, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Helena Independent Record, KECI-TV, Ravalli Republic
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