During my 10 years in the Montana Legislature, I can vouch that no public contract has generated greater complaints and controversy than with CoreCivic. The private, for-profit, out-of-state prison corporation has created ongoing problems in Montana, along with a dismal reputation across the country.
As the state dealt with less-than-anticipated revenues last fall, CoreCivic tried to push a hasty contract renewal in exchange for $35.7 million of Montana taxpayer dollars held in an escrow account. It was established in the original contract to ensure that if, after 20 years, the state of Montana found that private, for-profit prison was not a good fit, the resources to purchase the facility would be available.
A hasty, shotgun extension of the contract without thoughtful deliberation and due diligence is a bad idea and terrible public policy.
CoreCivic opposed and effectively killed study bills that would have given lawmakers in-depth analysis to decide whether to continue its contract with the corporation. In the 2015 and 2017 sessions, when there was a good window of time to inform fellow legislators and address the many issues and questions, CoreCivic successfully lobbied in opposition to such a study.
I have spoken to very few lawmakers of either party who believe that for-profit incarceration is sound public policy or wise. The imbalance of power and complete control over the prisoner in such a system results in a huge conflict of interest.
It is noteworthy that Republicans advocating for CoreCivic contract renewal voted to cut human services by $75 million and to make those cuts permanent during the November special session. Now they’re crying crocodile tears about the cuts in human services and falsely representing that the $35.7 million would go toward human services if only the governor would extend the contract.
Most of the legislators who are pushing the contract neglect to mention that they voted no on several common-sense solutions that would have prevented the massive human services cuts, including the cigarette tax ($55 million) and rescinding a 2003 tax break of 0.5 percent income tax for individuals making over $500,000 ($37 million).
Idaho canceled its contract with CoreCivic (then Corrections Corporation of America) after scandal erupted. The facility was so violent that inmates called it the "Gladiator School” due to chronic levels of understaffing leading to violence, and expensive litigation against the state.
After years of low wages and inability to fill positions leading to consistent understaffing, CoreCivic apparently now says it is willing propose a raise for its workers. Yet, it is still offering less in wages and benefits than our state correctional or county correctional officers.
Currently, CoreCivic is being sued in other areas of the country by the Southern Poverty Law Center for abusive practices, including forced labor, and by the American Diabetes Association due to the nutritional negligence so extreme that it is destroying inmates’ health. These are also issues we have heard consistently raised by family members of inmates at Crossroads.
Skimping on food, staffing, health care, and programming are the expected outcome of a system when a company whose responsibility is to make a profit is put in charge of custodial care and given absolute power over human beings who have no voice and no power.
Montana can do better. Accepting a bad deal from CoreCivic is not an ethical path to meeting our responsibilities to provide human services to our most vulnerable Montanans, nor would it come remotely close to addressing the gaps in the human services budget, nor is it a long term solution to meet those critical, ongoing needs.