BUTTE – The Department of Justice’s decision not to renew contracts with private federal prisons will not affect the 95 federal prisoners held in Montana’s private prison, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana Melissa Hornbein.
Montana is home to no federal prisons – privately or government-run – but federal prisoners are held at Crossroads Correctional Center, a privately run mixed-security state prison in Shelby. Ninety-five of the prison’s 550 beds are reserved for federal prisoners.
Those federal prisoners come courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service, not the Bureau of Prisons, and therefore don’t qualify under the DOJ’s decision.
“The federal inmates in the prison are contracted out to the U.S. Marshals Service for holding prisoners either prior to sentencing or once they’ve been sentenced but before they’ve been assigned to a federal facility,” Hornbein said.
Crossroads is operated by Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison company, which has 85 facilities across the U.S., including 13 private federal prisons. Crossroads is the only private prison in Montana, and CCA’s only facility in the Northwest.
Crossroads was built in 1999 under the condition it would house only Montana prisoners, with the state Legislature passing a bill banning prisoner import, according to past news stories. CCA officials at the time said they would not need out-of-state prisoners to keep the prison at capacity and above water.
That changed when the state removed prisoners from Crossroads in 2002 to save money, dropping the prison population below profitable levels. With the prison 35 percent empty, Crossroads laid off dozens of employees, and risked closure.
CCA lobbied the Legislature to override the 1999 prisoner import ban and allow federal and out-of-state inmates at Crossroads in 2003. The Legislature passed the proposal after stripping the bill of a three-year sunset clause for importation.
Crossroads’ population now exceeds capacity, with 50 temporary beds for prisoners, according to the Department of Corrections Wednesday population report.
Montana Department of Corrections communications director Judy Beck said her office has zero involvement with the federal prisoners held at Crossroads, and that those inmates are under the purview of the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The DOJ announced its decision to end involvement with federal prisons in a memorandum from Sally Yates, deputy attorney general for the United States, on Aug. 18. The memo stated private prisons do not meet the same level of safety and security as government-run prisons, and do not save substantially on costs.
These concerns echo the findings of an investigation into private prisons by the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General, released a week before the memo.
Beck said the Department of Corrections had not yet reviewed the Inspector General’s report, and cannot comment at this time.
Crossroads did not respond to requests to comment on federal prisoners held at the facility, and in a press release CCA condemned the Inspector General’s report as flawed.
The state's 20-year contract with CCA expires in 2019, requiring the state to extend the contract or purchase the prison.
The DOJ decision affects only a fraction of the nation’s inmates in private prisons, as most are held in state, not federal private prisons.
According to the Congressional Research Service, Montana imprisons the second largest percentage of prisoners in private prisons, 36 percent.