Montana State Prison. Keith Schubert/Daily Montanan.
The staff vacancy rate at the Montana State Prison has increased from 20% in January to 30% as of Monday, and employees are being asked to bear the brunt of the shortages through upcoming mandatory 12-hour shifts, according to an internal memo sent to prison staff on Monday.
“The Montana Department of Corrections’ Executive Team would like to thank you all for your hard work, especially over the past few months as we have struggled with staffing levels at Montana State Prison,” the memo read. “Due to vacancies, light duty, extended leave and a depleted workforce throughout Montana, MSP is down 79 positions.”
The 1,600-unit men’s prison in Deer Lodge requires 328 correctional officers to be considered fully staffed. In early May, the prison was forced to close down an entire unit — a move DOC officials said would ease staffing troubles by reducing the number of mandatory posts.
According to the memo sent to employees by top prison officials, shifts will run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. During the first week, correctional officers are expected to work three 12-hour days and will get four days off. During the second week, they are expected to work three, 12-hour days, one, eight-hour day and will get three days off. And all correctional officers working 12-hour shifts will be compensated for four hours of overtime pay for each 12-hour shift.
Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, who works as a correctional officer at the prison, was on break at the prison during an overtime shift when reached by phone Tuesday night. “It sucks,” he said.
He said the new policy will further exacerbate the low morale at the prison, leading to more staff leaving. As for himself, he said it’s “up in the air” as to whether he quits if the policy goes into effect on July 16.
“In my opinion, with them forcing people to go to twelves, it’s not going to help the situation at all. There are some people that, you know, like the idea of working twelves, but there’s a lot of people that don’t, and it’s a change in their working conditions that management didn’t bargain for,” he said.
The prison said the memo constitutes the 14-day notice of a change in schedule required by the Local 4700 Collective Bargaining Agreement.
For Frazer, the solution is simple: treat staff better.
“If specific people in management would treat staff better, treat them like humans … make sure the staff feel valued and appreciated and heard, then people would be more inclined to volunteer their time to help out with these mandatory overtimes. And to help recruit, to get people to come out here,” he said.
Visitation will also be reduced for inmates to two days per week, effective July 2, per the memo. “This will allow us to place correctional officers normally assigned to visitation inside the compound,” the document reads. Per the DOC website, the state prison currently offers visitation Thursday through Sunday.
In an effort to boost morale and stop the staffing hemorrhaging the prison reached an agreement with the local union earlier that included a $2 hourly raise. The department also centralized its Retention and Recruitment Committee about two months ago in an effort to more effectively recruit staff.
Employee shortages have existed for more than a decade, but prison warden Jim Salmonsen told reporters earlier this month that he has never seen anything “to this magnitude” before.