Shelby private prison has local support – but state hasn’t extended contract

Posted at 5:41 PM, Mar 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-29 19:41:11-04

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on Montana’s only private prison, Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.

For civic leaders in Toole County and Shelby, the Crossroads Correctional Center is seen as a good corporate citizen, a tax-paying employer that also happens to be a prison.

“They’ve been a very good asset to the community,” accountant Dwaine Iverson of Shelby told MTN News in an interview last week. “It’s a good employer. … Any warden we’ve had has always been very involved in civic things; a lot of the top people within that facility are involved in civic things.”

The 700-bed private prison just southwest of Shelby employs 177 people at full staff and pays correctional officers a starting salary of $14.60 an hour – slightly lower than the $15.31 an hour offered at Montana State Prison, 220 miles to the south in Deer Lodge.

The private prison also pays nearly $450,000 a year in property taxes, which help fund the county and city governments and local schools, and offers employees health insurance and a 401-K investment plan, with partial matching donations from the company.

But the state contract with prison owner and operator CoreCivic expires next year, and Gov. Steve Bullock’s administration has yet to extend it.

Critics of private prisons say Crossroads and Tennessee-based CoreCivic aren’t a part of the state prison system worth keeping in its current form – especially since the 2017 Legislature passed a series of reforms designed to reduce Montana’s prison population.

They say the mission of a for-profit prison runs contrary to state goals of reducing the inmate population.

“The state … should come up with a plan to remove that facility from CoreCivic ownership or operation and use it as a way to provide the programming that so many incarcerated Montanans need, to fulfill the obligations of their sentence and be put back in communities,” says SK Rossi, advocacy and policy director for the Montana office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa, told MTN News this week the administration has been talking to CoreCivic about a new contract and would like to reach an agreement.

However, he said the state may want CoreCivic to offer programs it currently does not, such as for treatment for sex offenders and methamphetamine addicts.

“There are certainly concerns on our part with some of the issues at the facility,” Villa said. “We also don’t want to saddle taxpayers with a long-term contract that doesn’t deliver the services that we would expect from a state prison or a state facility.”

CoreCivic wouldn’t comment on the contract negotiations.

Yet Pat McTighe, the prison’s warden, told MTN News that CoreCivic is a big believer in getting inmates ready for “re-entry” into society. Crossroads offers all of the programs required in its current contract, he says, including drug-and-alcohol treatment, and some not required, such as computer training, parenting classes, Braille translation and carpentry.

Supporters of the prison also say the Republican-controlled Legislature is not going to approve a state takeover of the facility – so the Bullock administration needs to figure out how to structure the contract, to achieve whatever goals the state wants.

“I think that the potential for the state to purchase this prison is null,” says state Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, whose district includes Shelby.

Cook also says he doesn’t buy the argument that the state may not need the prison beds at Shelby, because of sentencing reforms.

“(The reforms) clearly are not going to make that big of a difference in the prison population over the next five years,” he says. “Those (arguments) are a red herring, to not do the job. … If we’re talking recidivism and trying to avoid recidivism, it’s easy enough to write (that) into a contract so that any private vendor can follow it.”

Cook and others also argue that the private prison – the only one in Montana – is a good financial deal for the state, providing both a lower-cost alternative for housing inmates and a form of competition, to keep the state honest.

“Really, in my view, you have the perfect thing – you have somebody doing what needs to be done to take care of those inmates, and the state monitors that contract every day, to make sure (the company is) living up to the standards required,” says Iverson, the Shelby accountant.

The state pays CoreCivic $73.87 per prisoner per day, or about $35 less than it costs to house prisoners at the State Prison. However, the State Prison has the costs that Crossroads does not: A maximum security unit, more treatment programs and inmates with special medical needs.

Critics of the prison also question whether the state really is saving money with Crossroads, saying the company scrimps on programs and staff that would help inmates come out of prison better-prepared to stay out.

“I think that CoreCivic actually has a financial interest in keeping prisoners detained,” says Rossi of the ACLU.