A consultant to the Montana Department of Corrections is recommending construction of a $371 million prison in the Billings area to handle a projected increase in the state's inmate population.
Preliminary plans call for an 1,800-bed facility - slightly larger than the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.
It would hold all classes of prisoners, from burglars to murderers. Both male and female inmates would be held there, although in separate parts of a complex that would cover at least 245 acres.
A precise location has not been proposed.
A governor-appointed advisory council is scheduled to decide today whether to forward the idea to Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Also under consideration is a $176 million, 1,781-bed expansion of lower-security community correction programs, such as prerelease centers.
The advisory council could modify or scrap either proposal - a distinct possibility given the high cost of the projects.
"That seems like a lot of money to me," said Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, co-chair of the advisory council. "My personal desire is to spend more money on education."
But Bohlinger's co-chair, state Sen. Steve Gallus, a Democrat from Butte, said the recommendations were likely to be adopted.
"The Department (of Corrections) wants to have enough beds to house Montana folks," Gallus said. "We don't want to need 500 beds all of a sudden and have to ship prisoners to Utah or Texas. We're trying to plan ahead."
Gallus said there have been no discussions yet with Billings or Yellowstone County officials about the new prison.
The first phase of the prison, capable of holding more than 900 inmates and costing $243 million, would be built by 2015. The project would be completed by 2025.
The proposal comes as officials in Hardin have been desperately seeking inmates to occupy a new 464-bed jail built in the southeastern Montana city two years ago. That $27 million jail sits empty after the city was repeatedly rebuffed in its attempts to land a contract to house state prisoners.
The Hardin jail gained national notoriety last month after city officials said they would take the suspected terrorists being detained by the U.S. government in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Montana's congressional delegation shot down the idea.
"We've got an empty facility here, but they want $371 million," said Greg Smith, director of Hardin's economic development agency. "We agree there should be a new facility. Why can't we be that new facility?"
The new prison was proposed as part of a sweeping 15-year master plan for Montana's corrections system, prepared by the consulting firm Carter Goble Lee of South Carolina in partnership with Dowling Sandholm Architects of Bozeman.
Ben Crooks, a senior associate with Carter Goble Lee and co-author of the master plan, said the Billings area was selected as a potential site because the city is the largest in the state, offering medical, transportation and other services that would be needed to support the prison.
He said no attempt was made to reconcile the proposal with the state's budget constraints. But the final tally could come in much lower than projected given that construction prices have dropped by up to 25 percent since the master plan was drafted last year, Crooks said.
The scope of the new prison and community corrections expansion was based on a projection by Crook's firm that the Montana prison population would grow by 80 percent by 2025, or about 3.9 percent annually.
"There's going to be growth regardless if you agree with projections we made or Department of Correction projections," Crooks said. "You're going to have to add beds somewhere."
The state projects inmate population growth of about 3.4 percent annually over the next four years. The agency does not make long-term projections, said spokesman Bob Anez.
Anez stressed that the proposal was still in the early stages and subject to significant changes.
Wednesday's recommendations from the 13-member advisory council will be forwarded in late summer or early fall to the governor, who would then refer them to the state Legislature.
The state currently houses 1,485 prisoners at the state prison in Deer Lodge, 500 at a privately run prison in Shelby and 145 each in regional prisons in Glendive and Great Falls.
The state women's prison, in Billings, has a capacity of 194 inmates. But Anez said that facility could be converted to a different use if the larger prison is built in Billings.