From lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to federal policies mandating a slow and unsteady transition away from for-profit prisons to scandals involving inhumane conditions and rampant sexual assaults, the private prison industry has recently come under fire across the country.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) initially balked at renewing the state’s contract with CoreCivic to operate Crossroads Correctional Center (CCC), a 664-bed prison near Shelby in the state’s remote Hi-Line region. Feeling the heat from that fire—and with its flames fanned by a six-month grassroots lobbying campaign by the ACLU—he initially balked at renewing the state’s contract with CoreCivic to operate Crossroads Correctional (named for being adjacent to the northernmost railway in the country.).
CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America and with a revenue of $1.91 billion in 2020, is one of the country’s major for-profit prison operators and has frequently been at the focus of controversy. Indeed, many social justice supporters saw it as a poster child for everything that is wrong with the American criminal justice system, therefore the governor’s first decision was lauded.
On July 28, 2021, Bullock reversed his position and declared that the state’s contract with CoreCivic to house state convicts in CCC will be renewed. What is the explanation behind this? Of course, there’s money involved. CoreCivic is in charge of a $34 million fund, which is funded by a percentage of the state’s rent payments and was set up to allow Montana to buy the jail back in the future. The corporation agreed to send the money back to the state now in exchange for the current two-year contract extension.
However, difficulties at CCC appeared not long after the renewal, raising additional doubts about the state’s for-profit jail sustainability.
On July 30, 2021, the ink on the new CoreCivic contract was hardly dry when a water deficit reached the reservoir that supplies both Shelby and the jail. Officials from the Department of Public Works hurried to create preparations to drill new wells, but the town was left without water for three days while they were being installed.
Both the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and CoreCivic spokespeople assured reporters that bottled water was being supplied to inmates, as well as portable toilets. During the three-day crisis, a prisoner told the Montana State News Bureau that the quantity of bottled water was insufficient and that the prison toilets were overflowing with human waste since the promised portable toilets had not arrived.
Temporary water difficulties are typical in rural jails with inadequate infrastructure, and substantial problems surely add gasoline to the already flammable situations in any institution. It should have come as no surprise to CCC authorities when such conditions culminated in the water shut-off over many days.
On August 2, 2021, three guards were hospitalized after a brawl broke out between two inmates and guards over their persistent failure to clean feces from their living space. The Department of Corrections said it is looking into the incident.
Water was restored to CCC the same day, but the Montana ACLU and other social justice advocates continue to be frustrated by CoreCivic’s inability to provide constant supplies and basic security.
So yet, the new agreement has attracted little interest or debate from other quarters. The deal’s primary sticking issues were around how CoreCivic would relocate federal detainees housed at CCC under contract from federal agencies when they were moved to Great Falls Regional Prison in a prisoner swap (GFRP).
Because Cascade County runs that jail, the US Marshals Service saw an opportunity to transfer around 90 of its inmates from CCC there and comply with a Biden administration request to reduce federal usage of private jails. In exchange, DOC will transfer around 150 GFRP inmates to CCC, a population growth that will necessitate significant renovation, such as the alteration of certain cells to
house three men.
The agreement also includes an increase in CoreCivic’s per diem cost for housing convicts from $71 to $79. Even the higher tariff appeared to be a bargain for the state when compared to the $104 a day it costs DOC to keep offenders at the Montana State Prison (MSP) near Deer Lodge. Naturally, CoreCivic selects the inmates it holds so that the state may keep the sick and elderly with the most expensive medical issues and the highest security classifications.
According to the Department of Corrections, the greater cost at MSP reflects increased spending on health care for the inmates housed there. Because its contracts typically exclude offenders with major or chronic health conditions, CoreCivic’s inmates are generally healthier. But Montana Department of Conservation Director Brian Godtkin seems unconcerned about the finer points of the agreement.
“If we’re doing $79 a day, and they’re doing everything we need them to, then why not?” he asked.
In answer is an ACLU statement protesting the company’s original 2017 contract with the state: “Instead of being leaders in criminal justice reform, our highest elected officials are shaking hands with an industry that warehouses their constituents in facilities without proper medical care and subjects them to racial discrimination, physical abuse, religious discrimination, and unchecked sexual assault.” Campaign contributions, lobbying, and old-fashioned cronyism are typically used to determine how these private jail contracts are awarded.
Sources: ACLU, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Helena Independent Record, KECI-TV, Ravalli Republic