Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. (Provided by the Montana Department of Corrections.)
Dangerous working conditions, staff shortages, and non-competitive wages were among the top concerns of Montana State Prison employees, who are inching closer to a possible strike, as they met with officials from the state department of corrections on Thursday to continue negotiations.
Gregory Frazer, a medical technician at the prison participating in Thursday’s negotiations, said union members are advocating for better wages and working conditions.
“Everywhere else seems to be offering better wages than we do, and we cannot keep staff here, which is dangerous because posts are being closed and services are not being offered,” he said. Frazer, a Republican state representative for Deer Lodge, spoke to the Daily Montanan on behalf of himself as a prison employee and not as an elected official.
Frazer could not be reached by the time of publication for comment on how Thursday’s negotiations played out.
On August 10, Federation of Montana State Prison Employees Local 4700 voted 60-0 to engage in “concerted activity,” bringing the union closer to a possible strike.
In a statement, the union said it took the step to combat unfair pay and working conditions. “There are correctional officers who work up to 40 hours of overtime in a two-week period, usually 16 hours at a time and on days off. There are others who are denied bathroom breaks for hours on end … We have some serious issues that need fixed,” the statement read.
According to the union’s 2019-2021 collective bargaining agreement the union is allowed the right to “engage in concerted activity after December 31, 2020, for matters pertaining to wages and benefits in the FY 2022-2023 biennium.
The Montana Department of Corrections said in a statement it was disappointed about the vote.
“Department leadership continues to work with the union following the agreed-upon process for contract negotiations. In the near future, we hope to arrive at an agreement that meets the needs of all parties involved, ensuring public safety, inmate security and employee satisfaction. The safety of our staff remains of utmost importance to the DOC,” the department said.
In the case of a strike, the department said it has a contingency staffing plan “to ensure effective and efficient delivery of services at the facility.” The department would not comment on the specifics of the plan.
Staffing shortages and recruitment have long been a problem at the state prison in Deer Lodge. In 2018, then acting and now formal Montana State Prison Warden Jim Salmonsen said at a DOC board meeting that MSP was “severely understaffed for correctional officers.”
In January, he reiterated that message to the Joint Subcommittee on Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement, and Justice.
“Recruiting and retaining staff … has been and will always be a challenge for MSP,” he said. At the time, he noted the prison had 15 correctional officer vacancies. The 68-acre facility houses around 1,600 male inmates.
A 2019 report from the National Institute of Corrections showed there were 4,723 people occupying Montana’s five state prisons and private prisons or local jails with 1,400 employees working at the five state prisons.
Because Deer Lodge is a small town, Salmonsen told the committee the prison is forced to recruit staff from Helena, Butte, Missoula and Anaconda.
But even when the prison can recruit staff, its salaries are not competitive enough to retain them.
“Sadly, it’s all too common for us to hire a new correctional officer, invest in his or her training, only to see them move on to a higher paying job at a county detention facility,” he told the committee. The current starting wage for a correctional officer at the facility is $16.46.
Salmonsen told the committee the prison is forced to mandate overtime from its employees to combat staffing shortages.
“Our list of individuals interested in working overtime has been exhausted. We utilize mandatory overtime,” he said, adding, “Imagine looking forward to your shift ending, and half an hour before you go home, you get a phone call saying you have to stay for another eight hours.”
The union also said in its statement that prison employees often deal with personal attacks.
“There are also staff who are harassed, threatened, retaliated against, and bullied by the command post on a daily basis,” the statement read.
A settlement from the state earlier this year highlights the ongoing harassment problems alleged by the union. In April, the state paid $250,000 to a former state prison employee who said he faced discrimination and retaliation in 2016 for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
A recently alleged stabbing of a guard by an inmate who was upset with being written up illustrates an extreme example of how dangerous the job can be.
On May 24, a correctional officer at MSP was allegedly stabbed multiple times with a knife fashioned out of an outlet cover by an inmate upset with the officer for writing him up.
According to the documents, the inmate and officer were waiting for medication at the prison’s infirmary on May 24. Dante Kirpal Kier tried to talk to the officer about the write-up, insisting he should have “done a more thorough investigation.” The officer refused to discuss the matter. As the verbal altercation escalated, the officer tried to hand-cuff Kier, which spurred Kier to stab the officer in the jaw, according to the charging documents.
The officer suffered a chipped tooth, multiple slashes from the knife and sore ribs, according to the report. As of July 2, the DOC was still attempting to gather Kier’s medical records of treatment, but according to the statement, he lost multiple teeth during the incident from his head hitting the ground.
The write-up was eventually successfully appealed by Kier, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges stemming from the attack, the most severe being attempted deliberate homicide.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Dante Kirpal Kier pleaded not guilty to the charges stemming from the May 24 incident.
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