- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana plans to convert a private youth prison in Galen into a treatment facility for mentally ill inmates to relieve overcrowding five miles away at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, officials with Gov. Steve Bullock’s office said Tuesday.

The 54-bed facility will house men and women accused of crimes who are found by courts to be “guilty but mentally ill” or “not guilty but mentally ill,” according to the governor’s office. It will also be used by people ordered to undergo mental-health evaluations or who have been determined to be unfit for court proceedings.

The new facility is expected to open Feb. 1 and reduce pressure on the state hospital, which is 37 patients over its 216-bed capacity, Bullock communications director Dave Parker said.

The Butte-based Community Counseling and Correctional Services now runs the 60-bed Reintegrating Youthful Offenders Correctional Facility from the building. The state has signed a letter of intent to lease the building from CCCS and convert it to provide mental health services, Bullock budget director Dan Villa said.

Negotiations with CCCS on the price will likely continue another few weeks, and the approximately $250,000 cost of renovation will be included in the lease, Villa said. State officials are likely to seek a 20-year lease to keep costs down, he added.

The state has a $4 million cap for operations and staff approved by the state Legislature earlier this year. Funding would have to be renewed each budget cycle.

The facility will employ 55 new professional and medical staff, and possibly 24 employees from the Warm Springs hospital, Villa said. CCCS will provide the maintenance, grounds keeping and food services.

CCCS’ federal contract won’t be renewed for the youth prison, leaving the U.S. government to relocate the inmates, Villa said.

CCCS chief executive Mike Thatcher did not return a call for comment.

Overcrowding at the Warm Springs hospital has long been a complaint by patients and advocacy groups. Disability Rights Montana is suing the state over transfers of mentally ill inmates from the hospital to the Montana State Prison, where the group claims they receive inadequate care or are placed into solitary confinement.

State officials have denied the allegations and the lawsuit is still pending.

Disability Rights Montana executive director Bernadette Franks-Ongoy said the governor’s announcement does not address the concerns of the advocacy group.

“I’m troubled that we are investing in and creating more institutional beds instead of making that investment in community services,” Franks-Ongoy said. “I think this is a short-term solution to a very long-term problem.”

Adequate treatment can be provided in community settings for many patients who are now in the state hospital, Franks-Ongoy said, though she acknowledged it would take longer to build those community services.

“I do believe the governor is trying to do the right thing,” she said. “This is probably the best short-term solution. I just wish we would stop being reactive and start being more proactive.”

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