‘Never Full’: Montana State Prison Officials Brief Lawmakers | 406 Politics
As union negotiations continued, Montana Department of Corrections officials gave lawmakers specific numbers on Wednesday to demonstrate staffing shortages at the Montana State Prison outside of Deer Lodge.
Montana State Prison sees 23% of its staff turnover each year, bringing training costs for new officers to $1.4 million, according to figures provided by the department to the Interim Committee on Law and court on Wednesday. Department director Brian Gootkin told the committee that 59 of 328 corrections officer positions are vacant, and those shortages often mean reduced gym or court time for inmates when staff can’t get away. mandatory positions.
“We’re never full on a shift,” Montana State Prison Warden Jim Salmonsen said.
Pay is at the center of the staffing shortage at Deer Lodge, corrections officials said Wednesday. Officers earning $16.46 an hour continue to leave prison for better pay at local jails, where they can earn $20 an hour or more, Salmonsen said. Lawmakers have been stingy in putting together the department’s semi-annual budget in the 2021 session, in part because of the previous administration’s failure to implement measures previously ordered by the Legislative Assembly. Gootkin was appointed by Gov. Greg Gianforte to take over the department a year ago when the staff was already thin.
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In August, prison employee unions voted 60 to 0 to engage in concerted activity, a step towards a potential strike, although no such action took place. Staffing shortages have highlighted security risks for employees and inmates.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the department’s presentation included a photo of a sergeant who had been assaulted by an inmate just a day earlier.
“Because we didn’t have enough staff, she was on her own,” Gootkin said. “The offender knew it and took advantage of it.”
Aaron Meaders, president of the Montana State Prison Employees Federation Local 4700, said Wednesday that more could have been done to prevent the attack on the sergeant a day earlier. He said working conditions at the state prison are well known outside of Deer Lodge, further hampering job applications.
As president of the union, Meaders also explains to employees why they are leaving their jobs.
“It’s because they didn’t feel safe coming to work,” he said.
Committee chairman John Esp, a Big Timber Republican, pressed Gootkin about the possibility of increasing personnel with the National Guard. It’s still a back-up measure in case unions go on strike, Gootkin said, but it’s not an ideal prison arrangement.
“We’re such a unique operation that these are very basic things they could help us with,” Gootkin said. “That can’t be the security part.”
Esp also asked Gootkin if he had the financial flexibility to give employees more pay; the budget is set until the legislature returns in January 2023. Gootkin said the department needs the legislature’s help next year, but said he hopes to secure additional pay with the office of the state budget in the meantime.