A recent audit compared the only state-run male prison in Montana—the Montana State Prison (MSP)—with the three smaller contracted corrections facilities used within the state’s corrections system. While the results showed similar performance in facility conditions and inmate treatment, contract facilities appeared to lack recidivism-reduction and educational programming. One reason for the programming gap may be the state’s focus on achieving cost savings through its contracts with facilities.
Programming and reentry services tend to require a greater dedication to improving performance outcomes and most often demand significant financial investment on the part of the correctional facility. If the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC) awarded funding for its private and public contract facilities partially based on recidivism-reduction programming goals, the state would likely improve its corrections services in two ways: better outcomes for inmates (leading to long-run cost savings due to fewer returning inmates) and a lessened need for costly inmate transfers.
For these reasons, prioritizing reentry outcomes in contract facilities, even if it requires more funding, is worth exploration.
Currently, Montana’s contracts for corrections facilities tend to prioritize cost savings. As a result, they succeed in cost savings.
Montana contracts with three in-state facilities: two county-level publicly-operated corrections facilities and one privately-run prison. They combine to house about 36 percent of the state’s inmate population.
The performance audit revealed considerable cost savings from partnering with the contracted facilities. From FY 2017 to 2019, the contract facilities saved an average of 24 percent relative to state-run facilities.
Focusing on cutting costs means that spending outside of day-to-day operations (things like guard staffing, food service, and health services) will be identified as expendable. Additionally, assessing the effectiveness of programming and reentry services for former inmates takes a much longer time horizon and is more nuanced than bluntly targeting the annual or biennial budget of state corrections departments.
Capacity constraints and facility conditions tend to receive greater attention for corrections funding requests in many states than the more difficult demands of preventing recidivism. Now that it is clear contracting produces the intended results—cost savings—policymakers should ask what might happen if Montana took a more long-run approach and designed contracts focused on outcomes like lower recidivism, work placement rates after reentry, and/or educational goal completion?
Clearly, Montana understands the importance of these programs. The Montana DOC funds the Montana Correctional Enterprises (MCE) program, which “provides general and vocational education, on-the-job training, and work experience to inmates in industry, vocational and agricultural programs.”
The contract facilities do not have funding for this program. Because the audit did not consider the fact that contract facilities do not have this funding, the contract prisons’ nearly 25 percent savings are understated slightly, since the $1.7 million spent on education and the vocational programs would put MSP’s costs per day at $107.24, a roughly 3 percent increase from the audit’s $104.38.
If Montana allowed contract prisons to put these savings towards improving educational and other programming services, with defined and measurable outcomes like lower recidivism rates, that would be money well spent.
Prioritizing these types of programming in all facilities would help the state reduce the current pressure on inmate transfers, a process the audit found rife with problems and wasteful spending. One contributor to inmate transfer costs is the Montana Correctional Enterprises programming itself. The program is only available at the Montana State Prison so inmates need to be moved to this facility if they are to participate. The savings gap allows the opportunity for more funding to improve and expand career readiness and recidivism services in contracted facilities which would help avoid these costly transfers.
Montana, like many states, has struggled to manage a prison population larger than it ever expected thanks to overcriminalization. Its ability to contract with private and county-level public facilities has eased a lot of the pressure of the MSP’s overcrowding (though it still operates at a 104 percent average daily capacity, according to the audit report). But contracting out does not mean that educational, occupational, and other forms of programming designed to reduce recidivism have to suffer.
By using the contracted facilities cost savings, Montana could increase funding for programs within contracted facilities while holding contract providers accountable to improving educational, occupational, and other forms of programming designed to reduce recidivism, contract facilities can work to bridge the gap with the MSP and MCE.
Doing so would not only relieve pressure on a problematic inmate transfer process but more importantly would give inmates greater opportunities to use their time to prepare for successful reentry into society—as almost all inmates will be returning back into society eventually.