During a media tour of the prison, DOC officials spoke about retention and recruitment issues.

June 7, 2022
MainStreetMontana.com
by Keith Schubert
DailyMontanan.com

 Montana State Prison. Keith Schubert/Daily Montanan.

 

The Montana State Prison is like a city within itself, and just like in the outside world, workforce struggles have impeded the prison’s ability to run smoothly.

From educators to correctional officers to nursing staff, the prison is struggling to fill positions, a problem that has persisted for years. Officials said on Wednesday that at any given time, 20 percent of the 328 correctional officer staff positions at the prison are unfilled.

While employee shortages at the prison have existed for about a decade, prison warden Jim Salmonsen told reporters during a media tour of the prison he has never seen anything “to this magnitude” before.

In the prison’s mental health unit, Salmonsen spoke of the importance of having a full staff.

 Montana State Prison warden Jim Salmonsen speaks to reporters during a media tour of the prison. Keith Schubert/Daily Montanan.

 

“Because this unit is more intensive, we do have more staff in these units … keeping a regular crew is paramount in this unit,” he said. “We try to, but we’re just not that successful in doing it.”

But it hasn’t always been this way, according to Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, a correctional officer at the prison, who said the staffing shortages have led to a culture change within the prison’s walls.

“When I first started there, at one point, there were more applications than what they could hire on. So you had people knocking on the door waiting to get in,” Frazer told the Daily Montanan in an interview following the media tour. “It was a nice place to work. It was a meaningful place to work. Things have declined over the years, and the culture shifted.”

And the staffing shortages have had a ripple effect on employee well-being at the prison. With mandatory overtime, he said correctional officers are being forced to work longer shifts.

“If you have children that you have to pick up from school, or you have an appointment to get to or fill in the blank with an infinite amount of other possibilities, it feels like kidnapping, and that drives the morale down,” he said.

One idea that lawmakers have tossed around to subsidize the staffing shortage is bringing in the National Guard, which former Gov. Steve Bullock did to offset staffing shortages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But Salmonsen and Frazer said the Guard may not be the best answer as they do not have the necessary training to step into a correctional officer role.

“The last time the National Guard was called … I don’t think their assistance was quite at the level where the administration and the employees had presumed it was going to be, and that’s not the National Guard’s fault,” Frazer said.

Salmonsen agreed and said he has not asked the current administration to call in the National Guard.

The prison, which can house up to 1,600 inmates, was forced to close down an entire unit in early May, a move DOC officials said would ease staffing troubles by reducing the number of mandatory posts.

Despite the struggles, Salmonsen said his staff is doing good work.

“I’m very proud of what goes on inside this place,” he said. One point of pride for Salmonsen is Montana Correctional Enterprises, the arm of the prison that provides education and workforce training.

During Wednesday’s tour, Salmonsen highlighted the prison’s wood shop, welding shop, auto shop, and upholstery unit. Inmates working in these units make from 40 to 80 cents an hour. And while inmates occupy the prison, their work at the prison shows the outsize role they play in making it operational.

 Montana State Prison inmate Charles Webb works on a piece of furniture in the prison’s wood shop. Keith Schubert/Daily Montanan.

 

Within MCE is the prison’s education program, where they are rolling out a new program called “Last Mile,” a computer programming class for prisoners. Montana is the seventh state to enroll in the program, which started in the San Quintin State Prison in California in 2010. The Gianforte Family Foundation donated $150,000 to bring the program to the prison, and the contribution will allow Last Mile to run for two years.

The prison is vetting inmates for the program; 22 will be allowed to take the class in the first year. Once a facilitator is hired, the course will begin in late June or early July. According to Last Mile’s website, 86 percent of inmates who take the course are placed into entry-level tech jobs, and the recidivism rate for those who complete the course is 0 percent.

“Our goal is career readiness,” said Education Director Marisa Britton-Bostwick.

 Montana State Prison inmates take an online education course. Keith Schubert/Daily Montanan.

 

But, she said, staffing shortages are also impacting her department, which usually has 150 inmates taking classes per year, but is now only able to service around 90.

And like in hospitals outside of the facility, the prison’s infirmary is struggling to find staff, said medical services manager Melissa Scharf. The prison’s clinic sees around 20 patients per day and has 25 full-time nursing staff and one infection control specialist.

Part of the problem, Scharf said, is working as a prison nurse is not what people generally see themselves doing while in nursing school.

“No nurses look at corrections to start,” she said.

Jim Anderson, who took over as the DOC’s public safety bureau chief in November as part of a reorganization of the department, said DOC is exploring multiple avenues to ease the staffing shortages, but no formal options have been presented.

“We’re just recognizing in the future … next five to 10 years, we’re going have to do something. And so we’re just starting to explore those options,” he said.

One option being considered is building a new prison or updating the current one, he said. “We could build a lot smarter prison for less staff,” he said.

Salmonsen also commented on the struggles of operating a prison built in the ‘70s. “It’s like fitting a square peg in a round hole,” he said.

One concrete thing the department has done to address the shortage is centralizing its Retention and Recruitment Committee. About two months ago, the department combined its two committees into one committee.

“Obviously, (staffing) is one of our main concerns and topics that we’re focusing on,” he said about the committee’s work. “We’re just trying to consolidate those efforts and put all of our resources going in one direction … We need nurses and medical professionals just as much as we need correctional officers.”

The move reflects the department’s new informal motto, “We’re one DOC.”

The committee will consist of various positions from the department’s correctional facilities and branches and will aim to recruit at places like career fairs and the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.

But for now, Anderson said the focus is building on the good work already being done.

“I’m proud of our people … they’re working hard conditions … and we’re trying to work hard for them as well,” he said. He pointed to a recent $2 raise for correctional officers at the prison as an example.

“We were able to get them a pay bump, recently, within our own budget, and we’re looking to go to the Legislature and ask for more; we want their wages to be competitive with the detention centers across the state. And currently, they’re not,” he said.

Superintendent pleaded no contest to charge, pays $135 in fine, fees

June 3, 2022
MainStreetMontana.com
BY: 
 
DailyMontanan.com

 Elsie Arntzen, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, walks into Parental Rights Education Action meeting at Crosspoint Church in Missoula, Montana on November 1, 2021. (Tommy Martino for The Daily Montanan.)

 

A Helena city judge fined Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen $500 on Thursday for illegally driving past a school bus stopped to board children, according to court records. A police citation notes the bus had its lights flashing and stop sign displayed.

The Municipal Court judge suspended $400 of the fine and the charge will be dismissed on condition Arntzen is not cited again for 60 days. Arntzen pleaded no contest to the May 19 incident, reported to the Helena Police Department by the school bus driver.

Arntzen paid the $135 fine and fees for the violation of MCA 61-8-351, according to the court. In an email, Office of Public Instruction spokesperson Brian O’Leary said Arntzen did not recall driving past the bus and first learned of the allegation from the Montana Free Press.

“Superintendent Arntzen would like to thank the bus driver for his vigilance,” O’Leary said in an email. “This is a good reminder for all of us to slow down from life’s daily distractions and to pay extra careful attention, especially as we enter the busy summer season.”

When the Free Press first reported the incident late last month, Arntzen said it had “nothing to do with OPI.” The story said the driver reported he was loading children onto the bus at the time.

In 2021, the Montana Legislature passed a law to improve bus safety after a driver struck and critically injured a student in 2019 while passing a bus, according to the Associated Press. The AP said Arntzen had testified in support of the bill.

 
 
Keila Szpaller
KEILA SZPALLER

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

In a since-removed Instagram story, Rep. Braxton Mitchell amplified false claims the Uvalde shooter was transgender

May 27, 2022
MainStreetMontana.com
BY: 
 
DailyMontanan.com

 Braxton Mitchell

 

State lawmaker Braxton Mitchell said it was not his intention to spread misinformation when he shared a post to his Instagram story late Thursday night calling the Uvalde school shooter “a deranged trans 18 yr old.”

The 22-year-old Columbia Falls Republican shared a since-deleted post by conservative author David J. Harris Jr. that falsely claimed the Uvalde shooter was transgender. Authorities have identified the shooter as Salvador Ramos, an 18-year-old male. There is no evidence that the Uvalde shooter was transgender.

On Tuesday, Ramos entered Robb Elementary in the small rural town of Uvalde, Texas, with an AR-15 and opened fire, killing 19 children and two teachers. A Border Patrol officer fatally shot Ramos when law enforcement responded.

Harris Jr. had quoted a tweet from former President Barack Obama: “As we grieve the children of Uvalde today, we should take time to recognize that two years have passed since the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer. His killing stays with us all to this day, especially those who loved him.”

Obama made the post on Thursday, two days after the Uvalde massacre and one day after the anniversary of the killing of Floyd, whose death sparked sustained protests across the country.

In his post, Harris Jr. criticized Obama’s tweet: “A deranged trans 18 yr old that murdered innocent children has ZERO to do with George Floyd! But thanks for exposing your ugly race-baiting, divisive heart once again @BarackObama. (wonder how many fake followers you have.)” The post from Harris Jr. garnered 83,122 likes on Instagram before being taken down.

Mitchell told the Daily Montanan that his intention in sharing the post to his Instagram story was to call out Obama for entangling the Uvalde school shooting with George Floyd’s murder and not to spread misinformation about the shooter.

“I posted the thing because the former president was trying to link George Floyd to a school shooting, and I think that’s messed up. And that was the whole reason that I posted that,” he said.

Mitchell said he did not realize the post contained misinformation about the school shooter when he added it to his Instagram story.

 (Screenshot from Keith Schubert/The Daily Montanan)

 

“I didn’t know at the time; that was not my intention,” he said. “Multiple congressmen, people in the former administration, senators, state representatives shared the same thing … if they’re posting something, then obviously there must be some credence to it.”

Mitchell, a Whitefish native, was elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 2020 and is up for reelection this year. He stopped short of apologizing to the transgender community for spreading the misinformation.

“I never spread any information,” he said. “I never specifically said anything. It was just a post directed at the former president, so that’s what it is.”

Shawn Reagor, director of equality at the Montana Human Rights Network, said Mitchell’s post is a dangerous example of misinformation.

“This is a clear example of how attacking trans people to score political points then puts targets on us for unfounded conspiracies and misinformation. It keeps us from being safe,” Reagor said in a text message to the Daily Montanan. “As an elected official, Representative Mitchell has a responsibility to promote public safety for all Montanans rather than spreading misinformation about an already targeted and misunderstood community.”

Misinformation after mass shootings is not uncommon and can often be traced to fringe far-right message boards. In this case, hours after the attack, a post circulated on the online message board 4chan claiming the gunman was transgender. According to the New York Times, the false claims eventually made their way to Telegram chats of far-right militia groups such as the Proud Boys.

After the shooting, the false claims about the shooter were shared by high-profile conservatives like Paul Gosar of Arizona, author and personality Candance Owens and far-right conspiracist and talk show host Alex Jones. NBC News reported that in a since-deleted tweet, Gosar wrote, “It’s a transsexual leftist illegal alien named Salvatore Ramos.”

In a statement, the Trans Safety Network,  a U.K.-based group that monitors online threats against the transgender community, said viral tweets falsely linked at least three different trans people to the incident.

Sam, a transgender woman who lives in Georgia, was one of the women whose photo was used to accuse her of being the shooter, according to NBC. Sam, 20, told NBC News that she has been harassed as people spread her image online.

“This isn’t the first time I was harassed, but it is the first time I’ve been accused of murder,” she told NBC News.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m., May 27 to reflect to correct Mitchell’s district.

 
May 23, 2022
MainStreetMontana.com
BY: 
 
DailyMontanan.com

 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded four Montana projects nearly $10 million in Brownfields money. Silver Park in Missoula was completed using Brownfields funds. (Provided by the City of Missoula)

 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that four Montana organizations will receive nearly $10 million in revolving loan funds to clean up brownfields, or sites where reuse is complicated by pollution.

“With this funding, four impactful organizations will advance the progress they’ve already made cleaning up and redeveloping polluted sites across the State of Montana,” said EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker in a statement from the EPA.

The EPA Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund Coalition grant program funds will be awarded to the following:

  • Snowy Mountain Development Corporation (SMDC) in Lewistown will receive $3.9 million,
  • Great Falls Development Authority (GFDA) in Great Falls will receive $2.65 million,
  • Bear Paw Development Corporation of Northern Montana (Bear Paw Development) in Havre will receive $2.15 million, and
  • Headwaters Resource Conservation & Development Council (HRCD) in Butte will receive $1 million.

Snowy Mountain Development Corporation

The EPA said it has provided some $3.8 million over the last decade to the Snowy Mountain group for 23 projects. The group works in a six-county area in central Montana and has current projects planned in Hilger, Winnett, Roundup and Lewistown. 

“A priority site will be the Crowley Block in Lewistown, which when completed will provide 14 affordable housing units,” the EPA said in the news release. “SMDC has already leveraged revolving loan funds to clean up asbestos at the Crowley Block with $4.5 million in state, local, and federal resources to bring the One Health Community Health Center into the formerly vacant building.”

In a statement, Cathy Barta, redevelopment director of the Snowy Mountain Development Corporation, said counties in the area show evidence of the industrial revolution in Montana.

“Vacant and abandoned railyards, gas stations, and former commercial properties add a blighted look to our otherwise beautiful historic downtowns and communities,” Barta said. “We are extremely grateful and appreciative of the EPA funds we have received over the last 10 years that have helped our communities begin to address these challenges.” 

Great Falls Development Authority

The Great Falls Development Authority will provide cleanup loans and grants at multiple properties throughout the City of Great Falls and Cascade County, the EPA said. A priority site is the Baatz Building, a historic vacant downtown building planned for a multiuse development with permanent, affordable housing. 

Brett Doney, CEO and president of GFDA, said the funds will ensure important redevelopment happens that otherwise would not, especially in downtown, riverfront and rural target areas.

“We will put these funds to work to help create much needed housing, essential community services, and entrepreneurial businesses to speed our pandemic economic recovery,” Doney said in a statement.

The EPA said it has provided GFDA $2.9 million over 16 years for projects that include the West Bank Landing, True Brew Coffee Shop, Miracle Mile, Arvon Block and the Great Falls Community Food Bank.

Bear Paw Development Corporation

Bear Paw Development plans to use Brownfields money throughout the five counties in its Economic Development District, which represents a large rural area of northern Montana. Projects include cleanup so the Bullhook Community Health Center in Havre can expand, addressing petroleum contamination in Chinook for a new restaurant and coffee shop, and assisting a former car dealership and fueling station in Chester to clean petroleum pollution so the site can be used by an agricultural grain merchandiser.

“These funds will be used throughout our five-county Economic Development District to clean up contaminated properties and put them back into productive use,” said Bear Paw Development Corporation Executive Director Paul Tuss in a statement. “This investment will revitalize neighborhoods and communities that otherwise would continue to be impacted by the negative effects of environmental contamination.”

Over the past 11 years, the EPA has provided Bear Paw Development $1.5 million for projects including the Boys and Girls Club of the Hi-Line in Havre, Malta Opportunities, Kaste’s Building in Big Sandy, and the Chester Vets Club.

Headwaters Resource Conservation & Development Council 

As a new recipient of a Brownfields RLF Coalition grant, HRCD will use funds to for site cleanups, redevelopment, and community activities in a seven-county region in southwest Montana, the EPA said. Priority sites are located in old, blighted commercial corridors and include former gas stations, auto repair shops, a former hotel building, and a former junkyard in a floodplain.

HRCD Executive Director Joe Willauer said he’s thankful for support from the EPA.

“The Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund for southwestern Montana is going to provide critical funding for properties that are underutilized and help spur development and investment that will lead to new businesses, new jobs and vibrant economies,” Willauer said in a statement.

The EPA said the Brownfields Program advances President Joe Biden’s Justive40 Initiative, which aims to deliver at least 40 percent of the benefits of certain government programs to disadvantaged communities. Since its inception in 1995, EPA’s investments in brownfield sites have leveraged more than $35 billion in cleanup and redevelopment, according to the agency.