Prisons go boom



Solving the Deer Lodge dilemma

Jails 'R' Us

Critics warn that only business benefits when prisons go private

If Montana's prison system is a house of cards, officials in corrections are hoping they can stack the deck before the whole thing tumbles to the ground.

In recent years, overcrowding has forced judges, police and prosecutors to allow criminals to roam free -- 11,000 arrest warrants remain unserved in Missoula County alone -- and dozens of pending lawsuits allege that conditions in Deer Lodge's Montana State Prison amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Last fall, after a temporary contract with a private prison in Dickens County, Texas, created more problems than it solved, state officials nixed the deal.

If things don't change soon, lawmakers and corrections officials have concluded, they're going to get a lot worse. The most immediate problem, nearly everyone agrees, is a 60 percent increase in the prison population expected by the turn of the century.

To alleviate some of the pressure, the state Department of Corrections lobbied the 1997 state legislature to free up more than $20 million to help build several regional prisons. And county jailers, who have faced their own problems due to the crisis in corrections, have worked with local constituencies during the past few years to set aside a handful of bonds totaling nearly $60 million to help pay for these new facilities.

By 2001, regional prisons will add more than 1,000 beds for inmates at the state and local level. That should allow the state to take care of the projected 3,435 inmates who will be in custody at that time, as compared to the 2,044 convicts who were doing time as of June 1996 -- including 1,222 men incarcerated in Deer Lodge, a facility designed to hold 850.

Last week, 70 state prisoners took up residence in the brand new penitentiary in Great Falls, and by the time this paper hits the street, all 152 beds in that Cascade County facility earmarked for overflow from Deer Lodge should be filled.

It's an exodus that will be echoed next year, when a similar jail comes on line in Glendive, and the year after that, when Missoula County completes the $23.5 million regional prison being built on Mullan Road and 144 state prisoners find themselves a new home in the Garden City.

Corrections administrators are also in the process of courting private prison firms looking to take root in soil softened by the state legislature. A controversial bill passed in 1997 allows an as-yet-unchosen firm to build a 500-bed, for-profit facility in Montana, and an independently-sanctioned private facility is scheduled to be built in Butte as well.

Capt. Mike O'Hara, the Missoula County sheriff's deputy who led the campaign for the $17.1 million local prison bond in 1996, says that building bigger and better prisons has been a long time in the coming. Population growth, he says, combined with ongoing cries to get tough on crime, have prisons bursting at their seams.

"The public says they're fed up -- they want to send a message to criminals," says O'Hara, explaining that the number of cops has increased while the system's infrastructure has been ignored. "They always attack that side, and when you attack one side you affect the other."

Even so, many say the current building boom does little to address what they see as the root of the problem: wrongheaded incarceration of minor league criminals in an age when the Drug War still balloons out of control. And even supporters of the boom -- most of whom agree it's long overdue -- resist the idea of turning to private profiteers to solve a public problem.

Instead, according to critics, the state needs to look for better ways to rehabilitate the non-violent offenders who make up about 60 percent of today's inmates. Even O'Hara says: "You can't build your way out of this problem."

Still, the state government is betting $20 million that regional facilities, in conjunction with ongoing private contracts, work camps, and the like, will open up enough space in the state's penal system to alleviate the population crisis that has plagued both the men's prison in Deer Lodge and the women's prison in Billings since 1988, when then-governor Stan Stephens announced that overcrowding was threatening to capsize corrections.

hirty new inmates each month are assigned to one of the state's various correctional programs, which include several community-based treatment and training regimes, according to the Department of Corrections. The press liaison for the department, Mike Cronin, says that new prison construction is a logical solution to a problem brought about by the state's increased population and the efficient job done by law enforcement.

"We can't solve the problem of increased crimes committed, nor can we affect the increase in the number of convictions," Cronin says, adding that like the prison itself, pre-release programs are nearly overwhelmed. He points out that more than half of the state's current inmates -- about 5,500 convicts -- are already in some form of pre-release.

"It's not just a prison system," Cronin says. "It's a corrections system, but brick and mortar gets all the attention."

There's little doubt in the mind of Missoula County Attorney and Democratic congressional hopeful Robert "Dusty" Deschamps III that both Deer Lodge and Missoula County need some help in the form of more prison beds. But the longtime prosecutor says he's concerned that the state may be overreacting.

"Nationwide, there has been a decline in prison populations," he says, "and many other states have over-built. What happens really depends on the crime rate. We know uncertain economic times have a greater effect on homicide rates than anything else, even if the population keeps growing. So what happens if the economy stabilizes?"

Deschamps points to states, such as Texas and California, where budgets ballooned in the face of rising crime and growing populations. Now, he says, those states find themselves trying to rent out their empty prison beds. In Texas, where 251 Montana inmates were held from the summer of 1996 through most of '97, the dangers of over-building are acutely apparent.

During the first five years of this decade, the Texas corrections department tripled its budget from $700 million to $2.2 billion. The state -- which had been forced by inmate increases to parole nearly 80 percent of its eligible prisoners during the early '90s -- today has 20,000 beds standing empty, even while holding inmates from more than 12 states.

With that in mind, Deschamps maintains that Montana's current predictions could be inflated, and that the state should approach the question of private facilities a lot more slowly.

"I'd rather see us over-build than under-build," Deschamps says. "But I really think we need to march into this thing pretty cautiously. The regional facility is going to solve a lot of problems, and with all the regional facilities we're going to make a dramatic dent."

Deschamps has his rap down cold. He breaks out visual aids as he talks, which show the rates of homicide over the last 40 years and reflect the fact that nationally murder figures have been leveling off. He's got placards which graph the 2,000-person increase in Missoula County's general population between 1980 and 1990, while the number of crimes increased by just over 100 for the entire decade; between '90 and '96, the population increased by 10,000 and the number of crimes committed increased by nearly 1,000.

"The reason the state of Montana is in such a mess," he continues, "is that when the 'new' prison [in Deer Lodge] was designed, crime had apparently leveled out, and the world was expected to continue to stay pretty much the same.

"Well, the crystal ball was kind of fuzzy, and we've been paying the price."

ithout a doubt, the privatization of prisons in Montana is the most controversial of the measures the state has seen fit to take in response to the current crisis.

At first glance, such a clean and easy boost to the economy would seem a natural way to add prison beds while saving the taxpayers undue burden. There are already 234 Montana inmates being held in the West Tennessee Detention Facility, and another 124 in the Central Arizona Detention Facility -- both of which are run by the largest for-profit prison firm in the country, the Corrections Corporation of America.

But past experience lends credence to those who argue that Montana ought to keep charge of its own inmates. The new plan for private prisons, in fact, is not the first time Montana has toyed with contracting penal services.

As Deschamps notes, many inmates in Montana were housed in private prisons before the turn of the century. They were made to do back-breaking labor for the private sector, enabling jailers to underbid contractors who had to pay their workers, while the bosses pocketed plenty. "In the 1800s," Deschamps says, "a lot of guys got extraordinarily wealthy running chain gangs. One of the best jobs in the state was to be the warden of the state prison."

The more recent Texas fiasco, involving 251 inmates housed in the Bobby Ross Group's Dickens County facility, also serves to highlight problems when it comes to private prisons. As one detractor put it back in 1996: "The private prison industry just isn't very good... As they say, you get what you pay for -- and they don't pay for much."

The American Civil Liberties Union and others argue that the profit motive interferes with treatment and rehabilitation. They allege that staffers are poorly trained, which means inmates don't get the substance abuse counseling, anger management courses and vocational training they need.

Complaints about small cells, poor medical care and lousy meals also head the list of objections against prisons run by private interests. And, according to critics, the guards, like the trainers and teachers, are often ill trained and underpaid, leading to doubts concerning both community and inmate security.

Citing an audit which pointed to such failures on the part of the Ross Group, Linda Moodry, who was in charge of the Texas contract for Montana State Prison, says that problems with security and health care were key in the state's decision to terminate the relationship in September 1997. From the beginning there were problems, Moodry acknowledges, including an uprising which took place mere days after the transfer of Montana inmates to Texas was completed. The warden at the time lost his job.

Then there was the matter escapees. While vague in her recent conversation with the Independent, Moodry acknowledges that two or maybe three Montana inmates escaped from the Dickens County jail. In fact, three inmates broke free over the course of just a few months, and one of those -- a 27-year-old thief named James Paul Nix -- remains loose to this day.

pparently, lots of people want a piece of Montana's jail business. At least 16 firms have contacted the Department of Corrections and expressed interest in expanding their industry to Big Sky country. Even the Bobby Ross Group, despite its troubled history with Montana inmates, has inquired about building in the state.

Spokesperson Mike Cronin points out that the state plans on having a strong set of rules for any private prison company which wants to get established here. And in addition to hiring a public official to keep an eye on the day-to-day operations, the Department of Corrections has charged itself with making sure that the prisons meet a variety of standards set by the American Corrections Association, which evaluates many private facilities.

From parole guidelines to design parameters, Cronin says, all matters of the impending private prison will be run in a manner on par with the public prisons. "The department continues to hold the position that this is a public concern, which ought to be handled by the state," he says -- to that end, the department put out a 250-page Request for Proposals last December, which takes 190 pages to set forth rules and departmental policies on everything from wages to health care.

Despite all precautions, there are those who are less than satisfied with the plan to construct private prisons.

Amongst the harshest critics is Scott Crichton of the Montana chapter of the ACLU, who also led the charge when inmates were sent to Texas. A longtime lobbyist on corrections issues, Crichton is succinct in his condemnation of the current plan.

"If you build it, they will fill it," he says.

Crichton is among those who champion alternative approaches to justice, including a treatment-oriented approach to drug and alcohol offenses. In his mind, it's clear that the key to avoiding long-term prison overcrowding problems involves overturning the basic precepts which have contributed to the current trouble.

"Our lawmakers talk today about castration and the expedition of executions," Crichton says. "This is not corrections anymore. This is crime and punishment, where we deprive people of smokes, of television -- of all sorts of basic freedoms. At this rate, we're going to end up warehousing people with no programs for rehabilitating them."

"And at the same time, we're going to take money away from education and social programs, and direct it to people who are making a profit on it."

No fan of private prisons himself, Dusty Deschamps nonetheless rejects the idea that their presence -- or the availability of empty cells in state-run facilities -- will force an increase in the number of convicts sentenced to spend time in jail. His experience in the business of locking people up, he says, has left him with a keen sense of the natural balance built into the justice system.

"To say, if I had more cells out there, I would lock more people up, just isn't so," he maintains, "We're talking about expensive resources, we try to do what's appropriate in every case."

State prisoners pull kitchen duty in the new Cascade County Regional Prison. Montana's inmate population is projected to grow by nearly 60 percent between 1996 and 2001. Photo by Jeff Palmer.

Capt. Mike O'Hara says that an increase in cops without corresponding improvements in jail facilities has left Missoula County desperate for prison beds. Photo by Jeff Powers.


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