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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Complaints Bring Legislative Scrutiny For Shelby Private Prison

Montana Capitol.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio

Montana legislators heard a resolution today to study complaints about the state’s one privately operated prison in Shelby. The study could potentially lead to it’s closure.

Former Senator Terry Murphy was part of a group that previously studied all Montana correctional systems, and he says major complaints at the Shelby prison concern food quality, severe under-staffing and medical attention for inmates.

“A doctor who had been on staff there for a time who just said … there’s no point in having  a doctor there because the administration won’t allow the doctor to do the doctor’s job anyway.”

The only opponent was the lawyer for Corrections Corporation of America, which is a private company the state contracted to run the prison. The lawyer, Mark Baker, says the study should look at more than just the Shelby prison to get a clearer picture.

“Without a holistic approach to these issues, the information obtained from the study will not be nearly as valuable as it could be.”

Corrections Corporation of America is a national company operating 61 facilities in the U.S. Recently, one such facility was closed in Idaho because of similar complaints and evidence of criminal levels of under-staffing, with some officers working 48 hours straight.

Shelby’s prison warden David Berkebile came to the hearing, but did not testify as an opponent. When lawmakers asked, however, he said his facility has enough government oversight including frequent audits and that it runs smoothly.

“Been with Crossroads Correctional Center only for a short time, six months, but as I walk through the institution I can see that it is a safe, clean, orderly, well-run facility.”
Democratic Senator Robyn Driscoll is carrying the resolution and says Corrections Corporation’s contract is up in 2019, leaving three options if the allegations are true: the state could fund a major overhaul of the facility, take over running the facility, or simply close it altogether.

If the study does happen, Terry Murphy has some advice for those looking into the prison.

“Don’t just concentrate on what you see during the time you’re doing the study, but look at the last four, five years.”

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the resolution Wednesday.

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