DEER LODGE — Warden Mike Mahoney rests his arm on the steel door as if it were his backyard fence and he was talking to a neighbor about a ball game. Through a narrow, bulletproof window, Mahoney's “neighbor” explains why he stabbed a man in the throat with a pen two months ago at chow.
The inmate tries to convince the warden that it was self defense so he won’t be transferred from the Montana State Prison to a federal Super Max facility full of much worse men.
In level tones, Mahoney tells the convict that he has two choices, each with different consequences. The first is to continue his violent ways and end up at a federal prison. The second is to behave and stay in Montana.
Prisons are their own universes. As much as any other, they are governed by choices and consequences.
A few days earlier, Mahoney was in a different world. He stood on plush carpets in the Capitol, trying to explain to senators why he needs $200,000 more for overtime when he has to call in extra staff to deal with inmates’ acts of violence, and why he needs $2.7 million more for additional beds to handle a growing number of inmates.
Both are among the cuts the Republican-controlled House has approved to the governor’s budget for prisons.
As Mahoney saw it, the Senate Finance and Claims Committee had two choices with different consequences. The first was to affirm the cuts, which he said would force him to come back to ask for more money later. The second was to restore the funding so he could safely contain the prison population at Deer Lodge.
They chose the first, effectively dismissing the prison system’s concerns about a growing number of prisoners and saying that the GOP budget plan includes adequate overtime funding.
“We looked at what was absolutely appropriate for the safety of the facility,” Sen. Ryan Zinke said at the hearing. “And we're fairly confident that what we have in (the budget) is safe and prudent.”
The effects of cuts
But Mahoney says doing without the extra beds means pushing the overflow of prisoners into the county jails. He predicts the problem will trickle down and stop at the squad car, where police will have to decide which criminals pose a big enough threat to earn a spot in lockup.
After that, the department would have to look at shipping some prisoners out of state – an option that has been highly unpopular since it resulted in the death of one Montana inmate in a Texas private prison in 1997.
What Mahoney says legislators don't get is that, for him, not calling in extra help and not locking up violent offenders is not an option. Nor do they understand the changing climate at his prison.
For a multitude of reasons, he says, his prisoners are more violent these days; they're coming up with more ways to hurt each other and to tear apart the prison. This means more guards have to be called back to watch over prisoners while others clean up the mess. It means more maintenance workers have to put in longer hours to fix the damage.
That’s hard to explain in three-minute presentations to busy lawmakers miles away from the prison’s concrete floors.
“I don't expect a subcommittee to understand that,” Mahoney said after his appearance Monday in Helena. “But I guess I do expect them to respect when I say that's what I need, and I didn't feel that happened today.”
So far, the Legislature’s budget committees have chopped more than $18 million from the governor’s two-year budget for the Department of Corrections, which is responsible for monitoring 13,200 offenders and managing 13 programs, ranging from drug rehab to mental health counseling.
Over the next two years, Corrections officials forecast an increase of almost 4 percent in the number of offenders, some in state prisons, some in community facilities and some on probation.
The cuts are real, Mahoney insists. Systemwide, they include 74 additional beds for community correction facilities and money for such things mental health services and outside medical treatment for prisoners.
Violence on the rise
Weighing the needs, especially his $200,000 request for overtime, against the state’s $3.5 billion general fund budget, Mahoney says he doesn't understand why the answer was a firm no. Maybe, he says, he's not explaining it well.
True, his overtime request is higher than what the prison received last session, as lawmakers pointed out when denied the increase. But Mahoney says things have changed at the prison. One reason is gangs.
Corrections officials count 176 confirmed gang members in Montana's secure facilities. That's more than 10 percent of the incarcerated population. Gangs, or “security threat groups” as the department calls them, create a culture of violence. Members bleed to get in, and they bleed more if they want out, Mahoney says.
The two major gangs in Montana State Prison are the Nortenos and Sorenos, West Coast-outfits that have followed the meth trade to Montana. Mahoney says their violence attracts younger offenders, and the often bloody consequences have rippled throughout the prison.
In one response, Mahoney has converted four cells in the maximum-security block into “hard cells,” with special feeding doors so officers can pass inmates trays of food without ever being in direct contact.
Extra gun ports were cut into the doors and back windows so Tasers could be used during violent cell extractions. New light fixtures had to be fabricated when inmates tore down the old ones and used them as battering rams.
Mahoney's typically subdued voice betrays his frustration with the cuts that legislators advanced last week. “Why are we tripping over dollars chasing dimes here, on a deal that could come back to haunt all of us?” he asks.
That's just a small glimpse of Mahoney's world. It's made of cement and steel. It orbits in a universe governed by choices and consequences. Even with 15 years as warden, there is no way for him to explain it in three minutes.
(Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at (208) 816-0809 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)