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No room at Montana State prison; corrections system overwhelmed

Ways to resolve the problem aren’t quick fixes, and in some cases mean those guilty of lesser crimes remain on the street for longer periods

By Angela Brandt
The Montana Standard

BUTTE — A spike in criminals convicted of violent crimes is exacerbating a growing problem of crowding at Montana State Prison.

Ways to resolve the problem aren’t quick fixes, and in some cases mean those guilty of lesser crimes remain on the street for longer periods.

“It’s a problem across the state,” said Leroy Kirkegard, warden at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.

A few months ago, the prison had more tahn 100 offenders awaiting a cell at the prison, he said. Another 300 were on waiting lists for other Montana Department of Corrections facilities.

“We’re in that same boat just on a larger scale,” Kirkegard said.

Basically, the whole corrections system in Montana is overwhelmed. More brutal crimes – such as homicides and rape -- mean harsher sentences. The prison has had to contract inmate beds at the private corrections facility in Shelby and to the county jails statewide. Community-based programs such as treatment and pre-release center also are at maximum capacity.

In the past, the prison started to triple bunk inmates. Nearly all of the cells are now doubles. Another option used previously was shipping inmates to other state prisons. Kirkegard said he will do his best to keep either of those from repeating.

“We’ll find room for them somewhere,” he said. The prison’s average population is 1,450.

One of those places has been the Butte-Silver Bow Detention Center.

Butte’s general capacity is 72 inmates. This year, the average has been 80. The highest was 96 offenders housed, said Mark Johnson, jail supervisor.

“This is the highest it’s been consistently for quite a while,” Johnson said. “There’s nowhere to put them. If we don’t have the beds, we just don’t have them.”

On a recent day, the number of Department of Corrections holds was 12. Johnson said that is actually a fairly low count as of late. It’s usually about 20 inmates awaiting placement at the state prison or another state facility.

“This is not a Butte problem. It’s a Montana problem,” he added.

The Anaconda jail is in the same situation. It recently housed nine inmates awaiting a DOC bed.

The state reimburses the jails for their beds at a rate ranging from $55 to $100 depending on the operating costs. Housing an inmate at the state prison costs about $100 a day per inmate.

While some county jails have resorted to putting inmates on cots in all corners of the detention center, Johnson says that is not the answer.

“The goal is not to have to do that,” he said. “Once you put them on the floor, you’ll never get them off the floor.”

When the numbers are high, the local jail instead will have officers give a notice to appear to offenders instead of booking them in for crimes such as disorderly conduct or driving on a suspended license.

“Right now, we wouldn’t have beds. We did for a couple months straight,” Johnson said. “I’ve left for the day at mid-70s and returned at low-90s.”

“This is the way society has changed. Crime is increasing.”

Butte used to average a murder every year or two. Prosecutors had six open homicide cases last year.

“There have been some brutal, brutal acts against people,” said Samm Cox, deputy county attorney.

“Much like the prison, there’s been an increase in all of our workloads.”

Officials acknowledge the growing problems. More violence equals longer prison terms.

“I think the sentences are consistent with the offenses being committed. What alternative do these judges have?” Cox added.

Kirkegard and other state officials are exploring those options. The warden is working to launch a dramatic restructuring of the way Montana deals with inmates following an assessment from consultants. The initiative would involved more placement of offenders in communities under the supervision of probation and parole.

“That’s what this focus will be. MSP offers a lot of programs, but it’s still prison,” he said. “Inside, we’re limited.”

More collaborative efforts between state, local and nonprofit agencies are one of the keys to the new ways proposed. Kirkegard said more mentoring programs and local resources will play a large role.

“We’re going to open our doors a little wider,” Kirkegard said.

Mike Thatcher, chief executive officer for Butte-based Community Counseling and Correctional Services, which runs treatment and incarceration programs, said he not surprisingly supports much of the initiative.

“In general, it’s been an overwhelming and taxing problem,” he said. Many of those community-based programs are at capacity or running over as well, Thatcher said.

Thatcher is optimistic but concerned.

“Hopefully the shift isn’t that we overwhelm our community resources as well,” he said.