HELENA — Montana leaders say the state’s prisons have been operating at or above capacity for years. Now, a new state committee is studying ways to move the correctional system forward.
As a provision in one of this year’s main budget bills, the Montana Legislature established a select committee to start planning for the state’s corrections facilities – both immediate improvements and long-term needs. That committee held its first meeting Tuesday at the State Capitol.
“Corrections facilities is really something that should have been dealt with a long time ago, so I'm excited about this committee,” said Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell.
As of Sept. 11, the Montana Department of Corrections reported housing 2,784 inmates in secure facilities, either state-operated or contracted. That’s higher than the theoretical “operational capacity” of 2,739. The Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge currently has 1,572 inmates – 46 higher than its operational capacity, and significantly higher than what it was originally designed for.
In 2020, the department commissioned a strategic planning report. It projected a need for 3,746 secure beds by 2039, though it said changes like the state’s criminal justice reinvestment initiative might mean the state wouldn’t need to build prison capacity.
On Tuesday, lawmakers said there have been many changes since that report came out – from new laws and policies to the COVID pandemic – and they want to take another look at the data and possible new projections as their work goes on.
“You've got to get some basic information pulled together if we're going to start talking about a future direction for the department,” said Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda.
Department of Corrections Director Brian Gootkin agreed.
“I believe providing this committee with the most updated data is probably the best way moving forward,” he said.
During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers approved extensive infrastructure spending for corrections projects – including more than $200 million at Montana State Prison alone.
“Thank you all for the support this past session – historic for our department,” Gootkin said. “I cannot tell you how excited we are for the future. A lot of work ahead of us, but it's all good.”
Several of the projects are anticipated to expand the available beds. That includes a $156 million project to rebuild several “low-side” housing units that currently hold more than 500 inmates needing lower levels of supervision.
In addition, the Department of Corrections is working on several projects to expand community corrections beds. That includes 51 new prerelease beds intended to reduce the pressures on overcrowded county jails.
Deputy Director Cynthia Wolken said they are in discussions with a provider to establish a sex offender treatment center in the Warm Springs area. She told MTN that facility would typically serve as a place to parole offenders leaving prison. The department hopes to have that additional capacity available by next June.
The department is also looking at options for a new prerelease center in Flathead County, but the facility they originally identified is no longer available.
“Trying to figure out what exactly checks all of the boxes – as you can imagine, that’s a pretty specialized property,” Wolken told lawmakers.
All of the plans for additional prison capacity will take time to come to fruition. In the shorter term, the Legislature also provided funding to contract with a facility for 120 prison beds. Gootkin said Tuesday that they have opened a request for proposals, which will close later this month.
During the legislative session, lawmakers’ discussions focused on contracting for beds at a private prison facility in Arizona run by CoreCivic, the company that operates the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby. However, leaders said Tuesday that there is more than one potential partner that could provide that space, so they are conducting an open RFP process.
“We wanted to make sure that we were really transparent about that business need – it locks us in for a little while,” said Misty Ann Giles, director of the Montana Department of Administration.
This select committee is set to meet quarterly, and they plan to have a report ready to present by next fall.