(Daily Montanan) Conditions at the Montana State Prison have long been deteriorating but have reached a boiling point in recent months, with employees asserting that treatment by management has created unsafe conditions for inmates and staff alike.

Staff at the prison have become increasingly vocal over the last few months about treatment from management, which culminated in an “informational picket” last Friday where a group of around a dozen employees gathered in an isolated parking lot outside of the prison to air their grievances.

While all employees at the gathering expressed frustration with management, others also lamented about the prison’s alleged willingness to violate the union’s contract. Employees said a new policy that requires correctional staff to work 12-hour shifts, instead of eight, was implemented improperly and without consulting the union.  In an email to the Daily Montanan, Department of Corrections spokesperson Alex Klapmeier disagreed.

“It is the position of the department that it did not violate the bargaining agreement with the implementation of the 12-hour shifts,” she wrote.

A correctional officer who spoke to the Daily Montanan last month and asked not to be named out of fear of retribution and worked at the prison for 25 years said he’s never seen the prison in such dire straits.

“It’s a dumpster fire that they are trying to put out with gasoline,” he said.

He said the way management treats employees is driving the staffing shortage.

“I’ve watched way too many people that were nowhere near ready to retire, retire, just quit and move on to something else, because they’re just tired of being messed with,” he said. “They don’t treat you like a human being; They just treat you like a number and your opinion doesn’t matter.”

During a media tour of the prison in June, Warden Jim Salmonsen conceded that staffing issues have existed for a decade but said he has never seen “anything of this magnitude.”

The situation also caught the attention of lawmakers who met with Gov. Greg Gianforte earlier this year to address the problems at the prison.

“We’ve never seen it this bad,” said Montana State Prison Employees Local 4700 Union President Cathy Clark.

Staff struggle

Staff on Friday largely described their relationship with management as adversarial.

Shannon Ray, who left the prison in May after 22 years, cited management’s treatment of staff as his reason for departure for another job that pays less and demands a longer commute.

“They don’t treat people like professionals … they treat them less than inmates,” he said.

Ray’s departure highlights what is at stake at the prison. The risk of losing long-time qualified employees at a time when staffing shortages are rampant and recent hiring classes have had less than five recruits to staff the 1,600-bed prison in Deer Lodge, which housed just more than 1,500 inmates as of August 24.

Clark said in the last year, the prison has gone from just under 300 employees to 158, and the staff vacancy rate at the prison increased from 20% in January to 30% in late June. In a letter from DOC to legislators, dated Aug. 22, the department said 90 of the 257 positions at the prison are vacant. The letter also showed that between May and July, the prison had lost 22 employees and was only able to hire eight.

Nathan Peoples, who has worked in the prison for seven years, said management does not value the work of the employees.

“They have made it very clear that we are expendable and that they will just hire someone else to fill our spot,” he said. “But the sad part is that no one is applying.”

DOC officials have largely blamed the staffing shortages at the prison on low funding, saying correctional officers can go make more money in other areas of law enforcement and the recruitment issues that come with trying to hire in Powell County, which has a population of just under 7,000 people.

One step the department has taken to address the staffing shortages is centralizing its Retention and Recruitment Committee. About two months ago, the department combined its two committees into one committee and continues to recruit at places like job fairs.

The state also recently gave employees at the prison a $2 raise, but correctional officer at the prison, Crystal Wilson, said that is not enough to put up with the dangers of the job and called getting a job at the prison a “stepping stone” for most.

“A $2 raise is not enough to keep people around. Nobody is going to want to risk getting stabbed for those kinds of wages,” Wilson said.

Along with the $2 raise, Klapmeier pointed to multiple other recruitment and retention efforts, including hiring a training manager to ensure required training is received and establishing a team tasked with identifying ways to enhance professionalism among facility staff. She also said the department is considering contracting for bus services to transport staff who commute from Butte and Anaconda and allowing groups who commute from other locations to use motor pool vehicles.

While there is no clear fix to the problems at the state prison, rumors have circulated for years about the prison moving to Billings, which would give DOC access to a larger hiring pool, but Clark said that is not the solution to the prison’s problems.

“My argument has always been … if you didn’t treat your staff like sh–, you wouldn’t have this problem,” she said. “If you take (the prison) away from this community, you will desolate every surrounding community, not only Deer Lodge, but everywhere else.”

Employees also said the lack of support from the Montana Federation of Public Employees has given management increased leverage.

“We don’t have the backing of MFPE and management knows that and willingly violates our bargaining agreement,” Peoples said.

Clark shared Peoples’ frustrations with MFPE.

“I don’t know why all of a sudden it turned into this fear of doing anything or being diplomatic … instead of doing what they used to do which is fight fire with fire,” she said.

Amanda Curtis, president of MFPE, declined to comment on ongoing internal labor disputes but in an email to members, spoke about the working conditions at the prison.

“MFPE members at the Montana State Prison are underpaid, overworked, and disrespected,” she wrote in the email. “On top of being underpaid and overworked, some members of management at MSP are so grossly disrespectful that long-time, multi-generational employees are just walking away shaking their heads.”

Her email also touched on the impact of the prison’s staffing struggles. “Vacant positions lead to unsafe working conditions for a couple of reasons.  It’s obvious to anyone that low staff: inmate ratios mean more incidents, but those low ratios also mean that inmates are denied services like recreation and library time…”

Inmate morale

Employees have said the ripples of the staffing shortages extend beyond the employees and have decreased the amount of time inmates are able to spend outside and receive mental health care.

“We are pushed to the limit therapeutically. We are covering way more than we can handle, and we don’t have a lot of prospects for more therapists,” said Pam Rozan, a mental health therapist at the prison since June. “It’s an unsafe environment, it just is, with the lack of staff and the amount of pressure that everyone is under.”

Multiple picketers on Friday said there were units in the prison that were not receiving yard time because of the staffing shortages, a situation they said happens multiple times per week.

Peoples said mental health techs from his unit are regularly pulled from their posts, leaving a gap in mental healthcare for the inmates.

“Every day in my unit alone, inmates are supposed to see a mental health tech … but that mental health tech every day is pulled to the floor, and that never happens,” he said.

Klapmeier said pushed back against employees’ claims about not receiving outdoor time or mental health services.

“Inmates at Montana State Prison are continuing to receive medical and mental health services, programs and recreation opportunities,” she wrote.

Scott Schlosser, a correctional officer at the prison, said the lack of resources for inmates has created a situation at the prison that is jeopardizing the safety of everyone. “(Inmates) are not getting the mental health treatment that they need; they’re just walking time bombs.”

Other employees have reiterated Schlosser’s concern.

Clark compared the situation at the prison to a “pressure cooker.”

“There’s going to be a riot. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. And anybody that you talk to can tell you that we do not have enough staff there,” Clark said. “It’s a lonely, desolate place. And then, on top of that,  because of staff shortages, (inmates) don’t get yard, don’t get rec, don’t get certain things that help relieve some of that stress. So then it builds and builds and builds.”

Peoples shared Clark’s concerns about a possible riot.

“It’s gonna happen out there now, most likely,” he said. “We keep getting short; these inmates know we’re short and all it takes is a good time to pop off.”