On Tuesday, the proprietor of Montana's for-profit prison at Shelby, CoreCivic, (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) offered to contribute $30 million to help alleviate Montana's budget shortfall. Of course, there is a catch; this offer is contingent upon a ten-year extension of the prison's contract to house Montana inmates.
For several reasons, this is a bad idea, rejected out of hand by Gov. Steve Bullock. In the event of a special session, the Legislature should do likewise.
The most obvious reason is contractual blackmail: Unable to secure an extension on the merits, the owners dangle the bait in times of budget angst, akin to the solicitation by a payday lender to a cash-strapped consumer.
A long-term, recurrent issue is the propriety and performance of the Crossroads Correctional facility, and of private prisons in general.
I served on the Montana legislative Law and Justice Interim Committee in 2013 and 2014. The committee heard serious concerns about the operations of the Shelby prison. Former staff, inmates and family told of understaffing, poor food and medical care, and the lack of rehabilitative programs necessary for prisoner transition to society. The problems were chronic enough that some members even wanted to send a letter to the FBI asking for an investigation. Nationwide, CCA leaves a trail of lawsuits alleging prisoner neglect and public safety issues.
The Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, issued a scathing report on the Federal Bureau of Prisons monitoring of contract prisons, including CCA, last year. In a majority of the categories examined, "contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions". Particularly troubling was a finding that private prisons "had higher rates of assault, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff." Based on that report and other concerns, the Justice Department decided to begin phasing out private prisons in August of 2016, stating: "They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources .... they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."
Shelby and other private prisons are corrections on the cheap. I serve on the Criminal Justice Act panel for the federal courts, representing federal defendants, some of whom are housed at Shelby. The facility has exactly one visiting room for 600 inmates, which makes scheduling an attorney visit to talk with an inmate an ordeal. Attorney-client communications are a fundamental Sixth Amendment right and necessary to the functioning of the courts, yet Shelby has continually ignored this problem.
A final concern is Montana's constitutional provision for a balanced budget and the laws passed by the Legislature to get us there. Those laws mandate certain actions by the Legislature and governor when shortfalls occur. To deviate from that system by getting a payday loan from a failing industry sets a bad precedent — for this budget cycle and every other one in the future.