Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. (Provided by the Montana Department of Corrections.)
Visitation for inmates at the over-capacity and short-staffed Montana State Prison will be suspended Oct. 31 until further notice.
“The vacancy rates at the facility are holding steady,” Department of Corrections Carolynn Bright said Friday in an email. “However, while we recognize the importance of in-person visitation to inmates and their friends and families, we must place safety and security of the public, staff and inmates above all else.”
The prison in Deer Lodge has operated over capacity every day in October with as many as 1,602 inmates to the listed 1,582 capacity level, according to the DOC’s data dashboard. Bright said it has run over capacity “to varying degrees” the past few months, as has the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.
Visitation is suspended in Deer Lodge only, according to the DOC.
Staffing shortages have hit many different industries, and they have been severe at the Deer Lodge prison. In August, a letter from the DOC to legislators noted a 35 percent vacancy rate there, or 90 open positions out of 257.
This summer, Montana State Prison Employees Local 4700 Union President Cathy Clark described the situation at the prison with both inmates and workers under high stress as a “pressure cooker.” Employees have said the conditions are unsafe for both staff and people who are incarcerated.
In her email, Bright noted the safety of staff, inmates and the public is a priority for the DOC.
She also said the DOC must prioritize activities that benefit the greatest number of inmates. For example, she said recreation involves 150 inmates at once while visitation involves 15.
“It is the department’s intention to resume normal visitation as soon as it is safely possible,” Bright said.
Bright also noted the department is taking many different steps to try to improve recruitment and retention, including attending career and job fairs; running social media campaigns; investigating employee transportation from Butte and Anaconda to Deer Lodge; exploring opportunities for employee housing and RV parking; championing for competitive wages for correctional officers in the 2023 Legislative Session; and more.
She also said the DOC is offering inmates two free 2o-minute video visits each week in order to help ease the effects of the suspension of in-person visitation.
“This is in addition to the two free, weekly phone calls each inmate receives,” she said in her email. “In fact, the department is in the process of increasing the length of those calls from 15 minutes to 30 minutes.”
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