Lawmakers call for meeting with Gianforte’s office and prison leadership to discuss problems

The DOC recently had to shutdown an entire unit of the Montana State Prison in response to staffing shortages

By: - May 10, 2022 7:37 pm

Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. (Provided by the Montana Department of Corrections.)

Legislators on the Law and Justice Interim Committee have requested to meet with the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections to discuss chronic staffing and morale issues at the Montana State Prison.

While issues at the prison have been long documented, problems hit a new threshold two weeks ago when the DOC had to shut down the prison’s F Unit for the first time in 30 years due to staffing shortages.

“I have to say that the morale issues and the recruiting issues are interrelated,” said Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, at Tuesday’s legislative meeting. “And this is an issue of leadership, in my opinion, leadership with the President, the warden, the vice wardens, etc. And I just think that, again, it’s urgent.”

McGillvray suggested the committee meet with Gov. Greg Gianforte next week and have DOC leadership including Department of Corrections Director Brian Gootkin and MSP warden Jim Salmonsen appear before the committee at its next meeting in June.

Gootkin told legislators in January that during the last three years, the prison has had a turnover rate of 23% and that has not improved in recent months with the DOC saying last week that at any given time about 20 percent of 328 correctional officer staff positions at MSP are unfilled.

And it’s not just Montana. In 2020, South Dakota saw 28% of its correctional officers leave. In Virginia,  two prisons had turnover rates of 54% and 56% in 2021. And in Colorado, two private prisons recently reported staff turnover rates of 126% and 107% in 2021.

A spokesperson for DOC said on Tuesday the F Unit remains closed and that there is no timeline for when it will re-open.  The state prison, outside of Deer Lodge, is a 1,600-person men’s prison. By shutting down the F unit, the DOC said it decreases the number of mandatory posts required on each shift, thus easing staffing pressures.

“The department has been transparent with legislators regarding the difficult task of recruiting and retaining employees in these demanding positions,” DOC spokesperson Carolynn Bright said in an email Tuesday. “As part of its efforts to address the issue, the department recently provided a $2 per hour raise to correctional staff and will follow up with an additional request in the next budget cycle.”

Local union president at the prison, Aaron Meaders, told lawmakers Tuesday that the $2 wage increase has not been enough to fix the prison’s problem. He said since the wage increase went into effect at the end of March, 23 people have quit. And in the last 10 months, he said the prison hasn’t been able to fill positions adequately with 166 people leaving the prison and only 106 hires.

“The reason why that’s important is because one of the things that was championed pretty hard by DOC leadership is that pay is gonna fix all the problems,” Meaders told lawmakers.  “While the $2 an hour raise does help, it has helped with recruitment, it does not help with retention at all. And even when it comes to recruitment … It’s not as great as it was portrayed.”

Meaders said there was only one correctional officer at the prison’s most recent new employee orientation.

“Prisons and jails are inherently traumatic places. People in prison — regardless of what side of the bars they are on — face serious health consequences from being there. It is no wonder prisons have consistently struggled to find staff that want to work in them,” said a statement from the Prison Policy Initiative to the Daily Montanan on Tuesday night. “The key to solving this long-standing problem is by reducing prison population and the reliance on incarceration as the response to social problems, such as poverty, substance use disorder, and mental health issues.”

Along with the pay raise, Bright said last week that the prison is relying on mandatory overtime to temporarily fill staffing shortages, a strategy that Gootkin told lawmakers in January put overtime costs at about $800,000 more than budgeted.

“For (DOC) having more people that they can force to stay is the answer to their problems instead of just trying to fix the problems that are causing everyone to leave,” Meaders said on Tuesday.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .

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