County, state working to shift state prisoners to Shelby, federal inmates to Great Falls

Cascade County officials are in negotiations with the Montana Department of Corrections to terminate their contract that requires the county to house 150 state inmates who have been sentenced to the state prison system.

On April 22, a bill including a provision allowing the state to discontinue the use of the Cascade County prison passed out of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee at the Montana Legislature.

If approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor, it will allow the county and state to end their contact and the state will move those prisoners to the prison in Shelby, which is operated by CoreCivic.

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Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said that he requested the state to vacate the county facility by June 30 to comply with a January executive order from President Biden directing the U.S. Department of Justice not to renew contracts with privately operated prisons. That would move 152 state inmates out of Great Falls.

Slaughter said that executive order has caused the county and state to try to orchestrate the change quickly.

He said that if the Legislature approves the move, the state prisoners housed in Cascade County would be transferred to Shelby and a portion of the federal inmates housed at Shelby would be transferred to Great Falls to make up for some of the lost revenue from the state contract, which is about $4 million annually.

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Nothing will be final until the bill is approved at the Legislature and contracts are executed by the Cascade County Commission. If the bill isn’t approved by the legislature and new contracts aren’t signed, the housing situation will remain the same, Slaughter said.

Slaughter said the details are in flux, but he hopes to take some of the federal inmates and then free up about 100 more beds for the county jail.

As of April 23, the jail had 301 people on the county side and 154 on the state prison side. Sixteen of the county inmates are state holds or waits, according to Undersheriff Cory Reeves. Capacity on the county side is 212. Capacity on the state prison side is 152.

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In a release, Slaughter said the county “would be pleased to help the U.S. Marshal Service by accepting a portion of their federal detainees who were being held in Shelby, at our facility. Given that change, it seemed like a good time to approach the DOC about vacating our facility to allow for additional space to alleviate the overcrowding that has really impacted public safety in the county. This avoids us having to go to the county taxpayer and ask for a levy to expand the jail and allows us to keep people who pose a danger to our community locked up. It’s really a win-win and I appreciate the DOC working with us to make this happen.”

As part of the discussion, the county has agreed to settle its lawsuit filed in 2019 against the state over unpaid fees for housing state inmates.

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Moving state inmates from Great Falls to Shelby is “a win” for inmates and taxpayers DoC Director Brian Gootkin said in a release. The Shelby facility “has much more expansive services related to recreation space, general education and vocational education classes, behavioral health services, and religious services, including an outdoor sweat facility for Native American inmates. This would give the DoC greater opportunity to give the inmates the skills they need to be successful when they return to our communities.”

As the details of these moves and contracts firm up, The Electric will report updates.