DEER LODGE — Some former employees with the Montana State Prison are alleging a toxic environment with exhausted and overworked staff in unsafe conditions.
“I’ve walked into areas where a person’s working overtime or worked several shifts in a row that are sleeping, sound asleep in a place that’s not good,” said former Montana State Prison Corrections Officer Bruno Kraus.
Claiming to be understaffed and underpaid, correction officers are forced to work overtime or extra shifts at the prison outside of Deer Lodge that houses more than 1,400 inmates.
"When you’re tired and you haven’t had any sleep, it’s very dangerous. You open the wrong doors, and if you open a wrong door down on max, your officers can get killed,” said former corrections officer Trisha Jackson.
Kraus, who worked at the prison for 27 years before retiring early, said they are supposed to report those sleeping at their post, but he never did.
“I’m not going to have some guy lose his job because they’re tired and overworked. That’s management’s fault. They’re pushing things too hard, and they won’t get the people that we need,” he said.
With a starting wage of just over $16 an hour, some believe the low pay prevents the prison from getting enough quality employees.
“There’s been fights where I’ve broke up by myself. Not supposed to, but I can’t just watch somebody get beat up without at least trying. I stop a fight on the block on High Side One. It wasn’t a fight, it was an assault: two guys, younger guys, were beating up an older guy,” said Kraus.
Former corrections officer Michael Jackson agreed, “You are dealing with guys that spit on you, throw poo on you and stuff like that, you know, hangs in the cells and stuff like that, so it’s a very, very mental thing that you have to, you know, go in there with every day.”
Both Michael and Trisha Jackson, who are married and worked more than 8 years at the prison, were fired from the prison in July, accused of abandoning their posts.
The abuse does not just come from the prisoners, according to the former employees. They allege rampant bullying from management.
“People yelling at staff in front of other staff. That’s not right. I’ve even heard them yell at staff in front of inmates. And that’s really wrong,” said Kraus.
Trisha Jackson added, “I was bullied when I was a little girl, and I believe the bullying out there is way worse because HR don’t do nothing to stop it, nobody does anything to stop it.”
The union that represents the corrections officers has been in contract negotiations with the Department of Corrections and has brought up these complaints during the negotiations.
In a statement from the Department of Corrections, Director Brian Gootkin said the department “generally does not comment on allegations from former employees. I would note, however, that we value our employees, are committed to ensuring a safe, healthy workplace, and will continue to negotiate in good faith with the union to reach an acceptable agreement.”
Some say that if conditions don’t improve at the Montana State Prison soon, things are going to get worse and more people could get hurt.
“It’s not getting better; this is why they’re 70 or 80 officers down all the time. We can’t keep anybody. We get decent people come out there and work and they quit. It's sad when an inmate has sympathy on how you’re being treated by your own employees. I hear it all the time from them: ‘Jackson, geez, you get treated worse than we do sometimes.’ I know, and it sucks,” said Trisha Jackson.