Pros and Cons 

Butte’s private prison plan raises some key questions

Following a mattress fire on Sept. 30, 1999, the Butte-Silver Bow County jail was condemned. The community then asked for a new jail. Now, instead, it looks like they’re going to get a private prison located 30 miles away in Warm Springs.

Tension swelled in the highly illuminated Butte-Silver Bow council chambers on Monday, March 1, as two contractors responded to the county’s request for proposals (RFP) that was issued just two weeks before.

First, Jim Merriam, a Butte architect, presented a plan to use the existing jail for administration and to build a county jail on the adjacent land. His plan would renovate the county jail for $48,000 and allow its use as a temporary facility, with a permanent facility to be constructed for $5.6 million. As was the case previously, the county would still own and operate the jail.

But Merriam failed to predict jail operation’s cost. “We’re a design-oriented firm,” Merriam explained to Chief Executive Jack Lynch. “We’re not in the business to say we can operate the facility for so much a year, but we could determine staffing based on design.”

“Then why didn’t you?” Lynch growled.

Merriam said he didn’t have enough time.

“You didn’t even meet the basic requirements of the RFP,” responded Lynch.

“To be honest with you,” Merriam justified, “this is a really strange RFP.”

Lynch rejected Merriam’s plan and then called to the stand Mike Thatcher, president of the Southwest Montana Rehabilitation Center (SMRC) and chief executive officer of Community Counseling and Correctional Services (CCCS). The two agencies are private, non-profit groups that operate under one shared structure.

Lights dimmed and Thatcher began his slide show. He presented photographs of immaculate rooms and secure hallways. He portrayed a snazzy detention center with outdoor recreation, mental programming, and good food. Statistics flashed across the screen, promising commissioners they would save Butte millions by allowing SMRC to renovate the Dr. Xanthopolous building at Warm Springs. The operations, Thatcher proposed, would be handled by CCCS, as long as the county agreed to commit to a 50-bed occupancy guarantee, at a rate of $70 per day/per inmate.

Thatcher assured the commissioners that the state would eventually use the site as Montana’s fourth regional prison. He promised jobs for Butte, and savings for the community.

He didn’t tell commissioners that in 1998, the Montana Department of Corrections (MDOC) considered building a geriatrics unit in the Dr. X building, but decided to look elsewhere for safety reasons. Hallways with partial partition walls, explained Mike Cronin, spokesperson for MDOC, posed security risks and tremendous expense for renovation.

According to a letter sent to Butte-Silver Bow by MDOC Director Rick Day on March 7, Thatcher has spent two years seeking approval to turn the Dr. X building into a regional prison.

“We [MDOC] made a good decision by not going in there,” stated Cronin. “That’s one reason why we are officially nervous about somebody else coming in and doing the same thing.” Cronin added that SMRC’s proposals were largely rejected because Thatcher insisted on charging the state $10-$25 more per diem than any other detention facility in Montana.

The Butte jail fire became a convenient opportunity for SMRC to propose a county jail that could later be expanded into a regional prison.

On March 8, commissioners voted 10-1 to commit to SMRC’s plan. Before voting, Commissioner Mike Sheehy testified, “I can not vote in favor of this proposal, because an overwhelming number of my constituents tell me they want a county jail in Butte.” Community members remained silent, but some held signs that read, “Keep Our Jail in Butte” and “Don’t be fooled by the slick sales pitch.” Commissioners claimed they had no choice but to accept Thatcher’s plan, because no other proposal fit the RFP.

The RFP remains a major source of contention. A would-be respondent, Copper Kingdom Construction, has filed suit against the county for allegedly constructing the RFP to match Thatcher’s proposal.

According to Joe Williams, MDOC Administrator, regional prison proposals must include specific details about construction and staffing so that operation costs can be presented to the state legislature.

Counties, explained Williams, usually submit RFPs for construction only, because they generally own and operate their detention facilities through the sheriff’s department.

Adding fuel to the fire of allegations, Rick Day sent a letter to Lynch and the Commissioners on Feb. 7 that stated, “Contingent upon the willingness of the State Land Board to transfer or lease the Dr. Xanthopolous Building to SMRC, Inc. and the demonstrated support from the Butte-Silver Bow local government, the Department intends to include the SMRC, Inc. project in the Executive Planning Process for the 2001 legislative session.” Butte-Silver Bow issued the unusual RFP a week later.

“We are going to do what’s right for the state first,” Cronin clarified. “We’re all for the concept of a fourth regional prison, but we won’t put ourselves in a position where we are paying $70 per diem.”

While SMRC awaits state approval for a regional prison, Butte gets a county jail in Warm Springs. According to Sheriff John McPherson, the county jail operated at $1,500 per day. Now, the county will pay no less than $3,500 per day, unless of course a petition puts the issue to public vote in June.

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