HELENA - The 2001 Legislature set aside $5 million in state funds for a new central intake unit at Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge, but Corrections Director Bill Slaughter said Wednesday the funding falls far short of prison needs.
The Corrections Department asked the Legislature to approve an $8 million reception unit to house 160 inmates when they first enter the system. Currently, the prison holds an average of 130 inmates a day in an intake unit that was designed to house 84 men.
But lawmakers balked at the size of the Corrections Department proposal and reduced the proposal's size, setting aside $5 million in state money and $1 million in federal funds - enough for a new building with room enough for 96 prisoners.
The intake unit operates as a gatekeeper for the state's prison system. Men are sent there when they first enter the system, then prison officials analyze the security risks posed by each inmate and determine where they should be incarcerated long term. With the expansion of Montana's prison system over the past few years into a network of regional jails around the state, the Corrections Department has said an efficient reception unit is key to maintaining balance.
Slaughter, who took the helm of the Corrections Department in January, said the short funding for a central reception unit at Deer Lodge was his major disappointment of the 2001 Legislature. He's uncertain whether to proceed with building the smaller reception unit allowed by the Legislature, as it wouldn't solve the prison's problem. Plus, he said, the department would have to hit up the 2003 Legislature for another expansion of the unit.
There's a chance the department may simply "give the money back," he said.
With the reception unit that was approved by the Legislature, Slaughter said, "We're going to take people out of crowded conditions and move them into brand-new crowded surroundings."
On other issues, Slaughter said he was pleased with many things the Legislature did in dealing with the Corrections Department. The agency left the 2001 session with an overall $16 million, or roughly 11 percent, two-year increase in state general funds - just slightly less than the Martz administration requested.
Much of the increase will pay for contracted prison bed space with regional jails and the private prison in Shelby.
Slaughter said he was happy with the pay plan approved for state employees, giving workers a 4 percent raise each year. Given relatively low prison wages, the department has had trouble recruiting and retaining employees in recent years. Correctional officers will get an additional $1 an hour raise beyond that this year, in keeping with a union deal negotiated last summer.
"The brightest spot was state pay raises," Slaughter said of the legislative session.
On another front, Slaughter said, the department has started work on the DUI treatment center approved by the Legislature. Under Senate Bill 489, the department will hire a private contractor to operate a 140-bed treatment center for felons convicted of driving drunk four or more times.
The law costs an initial $2.5 million in building renovation and start-up costs, but is expected to save $3 million each into the future year in what it would have cost to keep habitual drunken drivers in prison.
The new DUI law will require longer prison sentences for those who refuse the treatment program and shorter ones for those who enroll. Slaughter said the treatment program is designed to be far more rigorous that daily life in prison. Treatment will require six to seven hours of counseling each day and inmates must work to earn every small privilege.
"You want a candy bar or a soda, you work for it," said Slaughter.