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Getting the shiv

State guts inmate treatment and educational programs

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The Missoula County Detention Center’s educational and treatment programs will be among the casualties of this year’s massive state budget cuts.

The center, one of three regional prisons in the state that holds a mix of county and state inmates, will likely eliminate its education, chemical dependency, mental health, sexual offender treatment, and anger management programs, says Susan Hintz, facility administrator at the detention center. “Anything we have out here will have to be provided for by volunteers,” Hintz says.

As part of the overall $45 million in state budget cuts, the Department of Corrections (DOC) is faced with trimming about $9 million. The state-run prison facilities, which include the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings, and several juvenile programs and boot camps, have already undergone major budget cuts, according to Joe Williams, centralized services administrator for the DOC. All that was left was to trim from the regional facilities and the state’s one private prison. Officials cut about $875,000 from their budgets and contracts effective at the beginning of this month.

“You can imagine I’m not getting many invitations to picnics unless they’re roasting me,” Williams says.

Part of the frustration is that administrators at the regional centers say they were not involved enough in the budget negotiations.

“On July 1 the governor issued an order that our per diem rate was being cut with no negotiation, no discussion,” Hintz says of the cuts, which work out to $2.63 per prisoner, per day. “Even though our contract says the rate is supposed to be mutually agreed upon and there aren’t any changes to the contract without both sides agreeing.”

The cuts come at a time when the counties are also facing other financial woes. A 2001 law that changed the way state money trickles down to counties which had the support of most counties was supposed to take effect this year, but that has been postponed. It’s been a drain on county corrections budgets, says Rep. Rosalie Buzzas (D–Missoula).

Less money coming in from the state to operate the Missoula County Detention Center is worrisome, says County Commissioner Bill Carey.

“We’re very concerned,” Carey says. The Detention Center “is a big operation, there are lots of costs associated with it, so when the state says they’re not going to pay us as much as they said they would, we’ve got a problem.”

Of the 350 total prisoners at the Missoula County Detention Center, 160 are state inmates. The DOC has proposed sending those state prisoners to other facilities around the state and replacing them with inmates who are scattered in different county jails awaiting transfer to a state facility. The county will consider that proposal when it goes into negotiations with the state in coming weeks, Hintz says. Both Hintz and Carey say one possibility the county is considering is bringing more federal prisoners into the Detention Center, which could be a valuable source of revenue.

Meanwhile, officials have begun to plan how to trim their services, Hintz says. Although no security staff will lose their jobs, she says, six full-time employees and several miscellaneous contract counselors will be cut. Those employees include a teacher, a chemical dependency counselor, two sex offender treatment experts, and two case managers who do advocacy and transitional work for inmates.

“I would be concerned if I knew there were people being paroled that hadn’t completed treatment,” Hintz says. People may disagree about the value of prison rehabilitation programs, Hintz says, but she uses sex offender treatment as but one example.

“They’re going to get out eventually,” Hintz says. “So I guess my question is, who’s more of a threat? A sex offender who’s been treated or one who hasn’t?”

Williams predicts the austerity caused by the current budget situation will last from five to eight years.

“I don’t see this as a short-term budget crisis,” he says. “This is a long-term process we’re going through.”

However, he says the DOC recognizes the importance of treatment programs and includes them in its long-term plans.

“If you have those kinds of cuts and they remain long-term cuts then what tends to happen is you end up backing up your system because many of those offenders need services to get out of the system by court order,” Williams says. “The longer those services are denied or unavailable the more strain it puts on the institution.”

In addition to negotiating with the regional and private centers to shuffle around some inmates, the DOC will try to get legislation passed next year to allow them to release offenders who are within one year or less of the end of their sentence, Williams says. That could affect roughly 500 inmates, he says.

The DOC hopes to get the legislation passed in the next full legislative session. Although the Legislature will be meeting in a special session next month to address some state budget cuts, the DOC believes its plan requires the thorough examination and public involvement that only a full session can provide, Williams says.

In the meantime, some legislators will go into the special session trying to find money to stave off the effects of this year’s cuts, including cuts to the prisons. The governor has said that she will not raise taxes, but there may be some other ways to raise revenue, says Buzzas, like freezing the business equipment tax (which is supposed to be phased out next year) or raising the tobacco tax. The hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue lost to corporate tax breaks over the last five years have left the state in this situation, she says.

“There are no great solutions because we are in a total mess,” Buzzas says. “But we are in a total mess for a reason.”

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