As the Friday morning sun edged over the craggy peaks of the Continental Divide, a jet lifted off from the Butte airport carrying 125 inmates from the Montana State Prison to a Texas jail.
It was the first time Montana corrections officials have exported a large number of inmates to deal with the overcrowded prison system.
The inmates joined nearly 1,000 other prisoners sent to Texas from jails throughout the West.
The early-morning transfer, amid very tight security, succeeded without incident, despite complaints from three of the shackled inmates. Another 125 inmates will be moved to the same Texas jail within six weeks.
Inmates, wearing chains around their ankles, wrists and waists, shuffled one-by-one to three yellow school buses, parked under the yellowish glow of sodium vapor lights. Prison guards in dark blue jump suits kept watch, and each prisoner was accompanied by a guard.
The convoy of 14 vehicles included unmarked cars filled with prison guards, Highway Patrol cruisers and sheriff’s patrol cars. An empty bus followed in case of a breakdown.
During the 40-mile trip from Deer Lodge to Butte, Highway Patrol and sheriff’s cars leapfrogged along Interstate 90 to block entrance ramps and check overpasses.
The convoy arrived at the Butte airport about 5:30 a.m. and, one at a time, the buses pulled alongside a chartered red, white and blue Boeing 737. The Western Pacific plane stood at the far end of the airport.
It was surrounded by SWAT team members armed with shotguns and automatic rifles. Other officers were stationed in grassy fields nearby.
Warden Mike Mahoney said Montana had to transfer the prisoners.
“Although this temporary transfer may cause a hardship for these inmates and their families, it will make jails safer and allow city police and county sheriff’s departments to enforce the laws,” Mahoney said.
Friday’s transfer came less than 24 hours after Corrections Department officials announced plans to ship inmates to the Dickens County Detention Center in Spur, Texas, about 60 miles from Lubbock.
Chris Christensen, department spokesman, said the prison population was told of the transfer Thursday and the inmates chosen for the initial group were notified about 11 p.m.
They were given time to gather some personal items and eat a sack lunch. Some of their belongings were sent on the plane with them to Texas.
xxxx AMONG THE INMATES Was Don Nichols, a self-styled mountain man convicted in 1985 of kidnapping and murder in connection with the abduction of biathlete Kari Swenson of Bozeman and the fatal shooting of a rescuer.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.