Department of Corrections officials are searching for creative ways to cover guard shifts at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge while trying to recruit candidates to fill 65 openings for correctional officers, agency director Mike Batista said.
Guards have been working mandatory double shifts and have been called in on their scheduled days off for the past six to eight months, Batista said, and pretty consistently for the past five months. In May, the prison eliminated two of the five days it allowed for visitation due to a lack of staffing.
Warden Leroy Kirkegard sent a memo to prison employees acknowledging the staffing shortages and thanking employees for maintaining safe conditions.
“Montana State Prison is at a critical juncture; we are trying to operate a maximum security prison with a minimum amount of staff,” Kirkegard wrote in a July 18 memo.
He acknowledged that the extended work hours were wearing on staffers and that they deserve a break.
“I have directed all my management team to evaluate their operations and identify staff that can be utilized in other areas and assignments that can be modified to assist in the reduction of mandatory overtime,” Kirkegard wrote.
His memo included an attachment listing several temporary changes the agency planned to make and others it was considering, but the agency declined to release it citing prison safety issues.
“Some of these solutions will not be popular with staff, but as the warden of the Montana State Prison, I have to make these adjustments to protect our staff and ensure we continue to operate an effective and safe facility,” Kirkegard wrote.
The possible solutions are being discussed with the workers’ union.
MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver said Friday the changes are subject to negotiations and he would rather not bargain in the press, but he added that prison work is difficult and he feels the starting pay of $13.15 an hour “does not reflect the rigor of the working conditions.”
Montana’s low unemployment rate, higher-paying jobs in construction, the Bakken and at other correctional facilities along with housing challenges in Deer Lodge — a town of 3,000 — are combining to make it difficult for the state to find prison guards, Batista said.
The ideal number of correctional officers at the prison is 354, which leaves almost 20 percent of the guard jobs unfilled in a prison that had 1,457 inmates on Friday, spokeswoman Linda Moodry said. Employees receive time-and-a-half pay for all overtime.
“The pay itself is not in every way going to make you want to do those shifts,” Feaver said. “You’re talking fatigue factor in a penal institution. We don’t allow bus drivers to drive 16 hours straight. Well why? Because mistakes can be made when people wear out.”
Burnout is a concern for Kirkegard and Batista as well.
“We want to make sure that all those officers that are working mandatory overtime have an opportunity for days off so that they’re refreshed when they go to work,” Batista said.
The agency is going to attend job fairs, make better use of social media and post videos on YouTube to describe the work the officers do, Batista said. The prison is considering reaching out to retired Corrections workers to see if they might be willing to put in part-time shifts, Batista said. Employees are being asked for their suggestions, too.
Batista acknowledges a job in corrections isn’t for everyone, but it has its rewards.
“People that work in corrections tend to really appreciate the career and the work that’s being done,” Batista said. “They get great satisfaction out of trying to help offenders and maintain public safety.”
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