Montana Department of Corrections researching drones as possible solution to staffing shortage

By: - November 15, 2022 6:03 pm

Photo courtesy of Pxhere

The state Department of Corrections is looking at drones as a potential solution at the Montana State Prison, which has experienced severe staffing shortages along with an overcapacity prison population.

Tuesday, legislators and stakeholders heard a presentation on how Nevada is considering using drones as part of a $240 million program to make up for its own prison staff shortages.

Members of the Criminal Justice Oversight Council asked many questions about the topic, but did not take action at the interim meeting.

In Nevada, the drones are part of an overall surveillance program called Overwatch, which includes thermal cameras and integrated software that allows camera footage to be viewed through a central dashboard, according to the Nevada Department of Corrections presentation.

Nevada Deputy Director of Support Services DOC Lisa Lucas said out of a budgeted 2,900 positions, the agency is down 900 people, and it’s looking to technology to fill the gaps.

Workforce shortages also have been an issue for the Montana State Prison, with vacancies leading to mandatory 12 hour shifts and at least a dozen employees picketing poor working conditions in August.

In August, the state prison was short staffed 35 percent, and on Oct. 31, a DOC spokesperson said staffing shortages had remained steady.

The surveillance program has not been implemented in Nevada yet, Lucas said, but it is part of an over-arching $240 million ask of the Nevada legislature, which will convene next February. If it’s approved, installation would begin in July, she said.

She said the surveillance and body cameras made up $20 million of the total project price to outfit each of the 17 facilities in Nevada.

Matthew Gregory of Nevada DOC said the idea for drones was to be able to provide “top cover.”

“Let’s say there was a fight in the yard,” he said. “It’ll take off and get you an eyes-on camera, which is then linked to your video system and your body cams and your radios, and by doing that, you get a better approach and help the incident commander take control of the scene.”

Presenters also discussed the security consequences of low staff and a high inmate population.

Lucas said with no guards in the towers, they had an escapee out of one of the facilities in Las Vegas and didn’t know he was gone for four days.

The Glendale Police Department in Arizona implemented this program on a local level, and Lucas said they got to see the technology in action and reported it was “amazing.” She said Motorola was the company behind the technology.

“We have this whole wall of screens, and we were watching live stuff happen. We saw a car being stolen while we were sitting watching the process,” Lucas said.

Lucas said she didn’t have a calculation for how many positions could be replaced with the technology.

“We’re trying to think outside the box how we can recover all the staffing shortages to keep everything safe and secure,” Lucas said.

Although Montana is researching drones as one solution, criminal justice advocates have pushed back on the idea that more surveillance is the answer.

Just this fall, Jodi Hocking, founder of Nevada criminal justice nonprofit Return Strong told Politico that the answer to this problem is decarceration.

“The answer is not drones and bracelets,” Hocking said.

At the meeting, Yellowstone County Attorney and council member Scott Twito asked about methods Nevada DOC has used to recruit and retain full-time employees.

Lucas said they’re looking at potentially letting clerical staff work a few days a week from home, as the department has lost employees to other sectors that allow full-time work from home. They also went to community colleges and spoke with high school seniors as part of a recruitment effort. She said raises weren’t in the picture as the former governor, Steve Sisolak who just lost his re-election campaign, did not want to raise taxes.

Director of the Montana Department of Corrections Brian Gootkin said Jim Anderson from the department went to the Nevada DOC’s proof-of-concept presentation. In his comments, he talked about how drones could be used to drop paraphernalia into prisons, but that there were also drones designed to “hunt drones.”

“There is a bunch of technology we are looking at now,” said Gootkin, a member of the council.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.