Montana State Prison. Keith Schubert/Daily Montanan.
The Montana State Prison is like a city within itself, and just like in the outside world, workforce struggles have impeded the prison’s ability to run smoothly.
From educators to correctional officers to nursing staff, the prison is struggling to fill positions, a problem that has persisted for years. Officials said on Wednesday that at any given time, 20 percent of the 328 correctional officer staff positions at the prison are unfilled.
While employee shortages at the prison have existed for about a decade, prison warden Jim Salmonsen told reporters during a media tour of the prison he has never seen anything “to this magnitude” before.
In the prison’s mental health unit, Salmonsen spoke of the importance of having a full staff.
“Because this unit is more intensive, we do have more staff in these units … keeping a regular crew is paramount in this unit,” he said. “We try to, but we’re just not that successful in doing it.”
But it hasn’t always been this way, according to Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, a correctional officer at the prison, who said the staffing shortages have led to a culture change within the prison’s walls.
“When I first started there, at one point, there were more applications than what they could hire on. So you had people knocking on the door waiting to get in,” Frazer told the Daily Montanan in an interview following the media tour. “It was a nice place to work. It was a meaningful place to work. Things have declined over the years, and the culture shifted.”
And the staffing shortages have had a ripple effect on employee well-being at the prison. With mandatory overtime, he said correctional officers are being forced to work longer shifts.
“If you have children that you have to pick up from school, or you have an appointment to get to or fill in the blank with an infinite amount of other possibilities, it feels like kidnapping, and that drives the morale down,” he said.
One idea that lawmakers have tossed around to subsidize the staffing shortage is bringing in the National Guard, which former Gov. Steve Bullock did to offset staffing shortages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But Salmonsen and Frazer said the Guard may not be the best answer as they do not have the necessary training to step into a correctional officer role.
“The last time the National Guard was called … I don’t think their assistance was quite at the level where the administration and the employees had presumed it was going to be, and that’s not the National Guard’s fault,” Frazer said.
Salmonsen agreed and said he has not asked the current administration to call in the National Guard.
The prison, which can house up to 1,600 inmates, was forced to close down an entire unit in early May, a move DOC officials said would ease staffing troubles by reducing the number of mandatory posts.
Despite the struggles, Salmonsen said his staff is doing good work.
“I’m very proud of what goes on inside this place,” he said. One point of pride for Salmonsen is Montana Correctional Enterprises, the arm of the prison that provides education and workforce training.
During Wednesday’s tour, Salmonsen highlighted the prison’s wood shop, welding shop, auto shop, and upholstery unit. Inmates working in these units make from 40 to 80 cents an hour. And while inmates occupy the prison, their work at the prison shows the outsize role they play in making it operational.
Within MCE is the prison’s education program, where they are rolling out a new program called “Last Mile,” a computer programming class for prisoners. Montana is the seventh state to enroll in the program, which started in the San Quintin State Prison in California in 2010. The Gianforte Family Foundation donated $150,000 to bring the program to the prison, and the contribution will allow Last Mile to run for two years.
The prison is vetting inmates for the program; 22 will be allowed to take the class in the first year. Once a facilitator is hired, the course will begin in late June or early July. According to Last Mile’s website, 86 percent of inmates who take the course are placed into entry-level tech jobs, and the recidivism rate for those who complete the course is 0 percent.
“Our goal is career readiness,” said Education Director Marisa Britton-Bostwick.
But, she said, staffing shortages are also impacting her department, which usually has 150 inmates taking classes per year, but is now only able to service around 90.
And like in hospitals outside of the facility, the prison’s infirmary is struggling to find staff, said medical services manager Melissa Scharf. The prison’s clinic sees around 20 patients per day and has 25 full-time nursing staff and one infection control specialist.
Part of the problem, Scharf said, is working as a prison nurse is not what people generally see themselves doing while in nursing school.
“No nurses look at corrections to start,” she said.
Jim Anderson, who took over as the DOC’s public safety bureau chief in November as part of a reorganization of the department, said DOC is exploring multiple avenues to ease the staffing shortages, but no formal options have been presented.
“We’re just recognizing in the future … next five to 10 years, we’re going have to do something. And so we’re just starting to explore those options,” he said.
One option being considered is building a new prison or updating the current one, he said. “We could build a lot smarter prison for less staff,” he said.
Salmonsen also commented on the struggles of operating a prison built in the ‘70s. “It’s like fitting a square peg in a round hole,” he said.
One concrete thing the department has done to address the shortage is centralizing its Retention and Recruitment Committee. About two months ago, the department combined its two committees into one committee.
“Obviously, (staffing) is one of our main concerns and topics that we’re focusing on,” he said about the committee’s work. “We’re just trying to consolidate those efforts and put all of our resources going in one direction … We need nurses and medical professionals just as much as we need correctional officers.”
The move reflects the department’s new informal motto, “We’re one DOC.”
The committee will consist of various positions from the department’s correctional facilities and branches and will aim to recruit at places like career fairs and the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.
But for now, Anderson said the focus is building on the good work already being done.
“I’m proud of our people … they’re working hard conditions … and we’re trying to work hard for them as well,” he said. He pointed to a recent $2 raise for correctional officers at the prison as an example.
“We were able to get them a pay bump, recently, within our own budget, and we’re looking to go to the Legislature and ask for more; we want their wages to be competitive with the detention centers across the state. And currently, they’re not,” he said.
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