DEER LODGE - Montana Department of Corrections (DOC) officials will again meet with state lawmakers this month to discuss ongoing staffing shortages across multiple secure facilities.
“We're having overtime shifts and hold people over,” said Jim Anderson, Montana public safety chief for DOC. “And our people are still working really hard and coming to work and, and we're trying to work hard for them as well.”
Montana’s correction officials opened the Montana State Prison (MSP) to media Wednesday to give a tour of the facility. Over about six hours, MSP Warden Jim Salmonsen showed where people at prison eat, sleep and work. Salmonsen acknowledged the magnitude of the staffing shortage but also touted the accomplishments of prison staff and those confined within its walls.
“I’m very proud of what happens in this place,” Salmonsen said. “Came out here just to start as a correctional officer to get some experience so I could get a job in law enforcement and I’m still here. I love it. I really, really do.”
Salmonsen started at the prison 33 years ago and took the job as warden in 2020. He said the only difference between him and the guys at MSP is one bad decision.
Through the end of January, about 34% of correctional officer positions were vacant across all DOC secure custody facilities, according to an interim legislative budget committee report. At the end of March, the Montana State Prison workers union negotiated a $2 raise to the prison’s hourly wage.
However, at a May interim legislative committee meeting, a prison union leader said 20 more correctional officers had quit since the wage increase. The DOC plans to ask the Montana State Legislature for another wage increase during the next session, Anderson said.
At a May meeting of the state legislature’s interim law and justice committee, state Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, noted his grave concerns about the “pressure cooker” situation at the state prison in Deer Lodge.
Trouble staffing the prison isn’t a new problem, Salmonsen said. But this is a new level. Beyond how it limits programing and movement within the prison, it exacerbates existing problems at the prison. Keeping a regular crew in the part of the prison for people with mental illness is paramount, Salmonsen said. An incarcerated person with mental illness might see someone new on the unit and think the prison is spying on them.
Low staffing in the prison’s nursing, correctional officers and educators also means less programing that helps prevent people from returning to prison. Montana Correctional Enterprises Administrator Gayle Butler highlighted a new coding program called The Last Mile. Started in San Quinten Prison in California, Butler said the program shows a lot of promise to change the lives of formerly incarcerated. More than 80% of graduates get placed in a job after leaving the program.
“The recidivism rate for The Last Mile for those that have gone through the program is zero,” Butler said.
The prison hopes to launch at the end of June but is still looking for a facilitator.
As the tour left the Restrictive Housing Unit of the prison where cameras weren’t allowed, staff yelled out, "You guys stick around, we could probably use you next shift.”
Anderson, Salmonsen and other DOC officials will discuss prison conditions on June 27 in front of the interim law and justice committee.