Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) With $211 million allocated to upgrade low-security housing and other facilities at the Montana State Prison, and the architecture and construction contracts signed for the project, lawmakers this week heard about initial timelines and projections for the project.

But after presentations to the Select Committee on Corrections Facility Capacity and System Development on Tuesday, and another to the Public Safety Interim Budget Committee Wednesday, a key question is yet unanswered: How many total prison beds, and what type, the state will need moving into the future to address capacity needs as the state’s population grows and crime trends change.

“I’ve got three things that I have to take into consideration: Your expectations of additional beds, the experts and the data that are telling me a different story of what we need and what we should have, and then our officers’ and our staff and our offenders’ safety,” Department of Corrections Director Brian Gootkin told lawmakers during Tuesday’s meeting. “And my biggest fear is in five years when we’re done, we’re in the exact same boat as today.”

The Legislature passed a package of bills during this year’s session to try to learn more about recidivism in Montana, reduce its rates, increase bed capacity both in prisons and in community corrections facilities, and to upgrade the aging Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.

The presentations from the Department of Corrections at both meetings, and presentations from the two companies hired to complete the MSP upgrade’s architecture and construction, provided the first insight into how those efforts are progressing six months into the fiscal year.

Perhaps the biggest success the committees heard about was the Department of Corrections’ quick turnaround of its staffing levels. The department had a 40% departure rate at the end of 2022, but after hiring two recruiting and retainment staff this year, the attrition rate was under 3% as of Wednesday.

The Board of Investments has also planned out new workforce housing it plans to build in Deer Lodge for entry-level workers to have a place to live that they can afford, then cycle out as they can afford their own home. Gootkin said Wednesday that efforts to make lifestyle-friendly work changes among DOC employees and giving them raises have also proven beneficial to retention.

The DOC met its own deadlines to sign contracts with DLR Group, the architects that will handle the MSP remodel and upgrade, and Sletten Construction, which will handle contracting and subcontracting for construction at MSP during the next five years.

Those teams are working with DOC and the Department of Administration to update a master plan with more specifics on exactly what the new low-security building and another upgraded one will look like. The bulk of the full MSP project involves replacing three of the four low-side buildings, which collectively hold more than 700 inmates, with a single facility and remodeling the fourth.

The businesses and agencies all said they wanted to work collaboratively through the entire process to be sure plans, timelines, and costs are understood by everyone.

DLR Group has already started planning what pieces of the project will start first, DLR Group’s justice and civic design leader Andrew Cupples told the select committee Tuesday.

Sletten Construction’s senior vice president Tony Ewalt said he and his team were already working to get subcontractors lined up for work to start next summer.

“To a certain extent, for the next few months, we’ll be going slow to eventually go fast so that we make the right decisions with the director and his staff operationally,” Cupples said.

DLR Group also hired Wendy Ware, president of the JFA Institute, to compile a report on the issues driving Montana’s criminal justice trends and to try to forecast how many prison beds the state might need in the future.

The state remains over its prison capacity, with a population of 2,841 across all facilities in Montana as of Wednesday that only have a full total operational capacity of 2,739.

Gootkin said there are now 60 inmates who are already at a CoreCivic prison in Arizona and that the DOC hopes to get the other 60 allowed under the contract there by the end of the year.

And while the DOC has reduced the number of inmates awaiting transfer to prison from local detention centers during the past several months substantially – including with a heavy focus on Yellowstone County, Gootkin said – there were more than 40 still awaiting transfer as of Wednesday.

Forecaster says Montana could see another 600 inmates by 2034

But as those final prisoners go to Arizona, and as more community corrections beds come online during the biennium, Ware told the select committee on Tuesday that Montana might still have issues in the future with having enough space to house inmates in secure facilities.

That’s because, she said, of a shift in crime trends during the past three years in Montana, as well as a population boom that has brought more men in the prime criminal age range of 18-45 to the state.

She made a model for Montana, as she has in other states, to determine what types of crimes people are being sent to prison for here and how long they are staying.

Ware found that even though admissions into prison are going down, the average lengths of stay, especially among men, is going up because the rate of violent crime which carries longer prison sentences is also going up.

She said the share of prisoners coming in for violent crime felony convictions rose to 44% this year from 37% in 2019, and that 64% of the current prison population has been convicted of a violent crime, compared to 54% in 2019.

Assuming nothing in policy changes, she said, she believes the prison population in Montana will grow by 600 by 2034 because of the longer sentences, and if the jail holds are fully absorbed and not sent elsewhere, the full population could reach 3,500 inmates in 10 years.

She and other presenters said in addition to that forecast, the DOC and architects will have to account for an increasing number of inmates who cannot live with the general population or share a cell. That may mean the upgraded Montana State Prison will still have to have high-security housing and won’t be able to put the vast majority in low-security buildings and settings in which inmates share cells.

Cupples said that through research so far, he sees that the state’s facilities and its contracted facilities have made many prisons originally designed for single-person cells into two-person or even three-person ones and that he thinks the state has long been operating at its emergency capacity levels.

He said this project needs to ensure construction is not only aimed at that current emergency capacity but includes space to grow. But that also means the teams need to decide — rather quickly — how to proceed with different types of security based on how much they have to spend.

“This starts to say where we’re at today, and we think that’s really the foundation for figuring out where we need to go tomorrow,” said Cupples. “…If we did all higher security, what could we afford? If we did lower security, what could we afford? If we did a mix, what could we afford?”

The DOC, DLR Group and Sletten Construction representatives toured a Tennessee facility last week to get ideas on how to proceed, and the group will do the same at prisons in Washington and Oregon next month, Gootkin said.

Tuesday’s meeting also featured a pitch from an investment group to try to buy the 464-bed Rocky Mountain Detention Center in Hardin for $13.5 million, though the Bureau of Indian Affairs currently holds the lease for nine more years.

On Wednesday, Gootkin said it was likely he would ask the Legislature in 2025 to extend the CoreCivic contract for the Arizona beds – another hint the state also does not see the population issue subsiding anytime soon.

The cost of materials will also be a factor in the final plan, Ewalt said. While prices and backlogs have gone down slightly from the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have not fallen to pre-pandemic levels. Cupples said the cost of a 500,000 square-foot prison built in 2013 was $143 million, but construction costs have gone up about 30% since 2020.

But for the MSP construction, representatives for the state and the construction groups pledged that making the most beds available once construction is complete, ensuring safety during the construction process, and minimizing the movement of inmates during construction, were their top priorities.

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, who sat on both committees, said in addition to wanting more specifics on the estimated bed count, he would like to hear more from the state about why the Department of Corrections is deciding to hold certain inmates in detention facilities and send others to prison, as well as more about why a prisoner is going to prison, and whether it’s their first time interacting with the justice system. The select committee is tasked with compiling a study report on recidivism.

Gootkin said he would have more information and data for the committee at its next meeting in March.

“We will have a better design with an actual number to be able to present to you,” he said. “We have one shot at getting this right.”