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'It's exhausting': Yellowstone County jail still battling officer shortage

O'Fallon
Posted at 6:09 PM, May 08, 2023

BILLINGS - After 12 years of working as a correctional officer, FTO O'Fallon knows the ins and outs of working in a detention facility.

"For the most part, it's all about respect in here," O'Fallon said. "If you can talk with people and have a level of respect with them, then they're going to have that level of respect with you."

The 33-year-old, who asked MTN News not to share his name on Monday, spent five years in Great Falls before starting at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, which is seeing a major staffing shortage.

"It's exhausting at times," O'Fallon said. "You can run short-staffed, as long as you've got that level of respect. But unfortunately, at the same time, one officer can only watch so many people at once."

O'Fallon said that the shortage begins with the recruitment process, which is understandable because the job can be intimidating.

"I think that it's just because people are oftentimes worried if they are going to make it in this kind of occupation," O'Fallon said.

The shortage comes at a time when the jail is well over capacity, and the city is asking the county to pursue a study to build a new facility. In some instances, Billings police are forced to release nonviolent offenders due to the lack of space.

"This is a problem that's been out there for a while," Mayor Bill Cole told MTN in April. "It's no secret everybody has known about it. It's impacting officer morale. They're not taking people to the jail that they think they should."

That conversation has gone on for months. Yellowstone County Commissioner Don Jones told MTN in April that a serious look needs to be taken at the entire justice system.

"The whole system does need to be looked at to make sure it's running efficiently and effectively," Jones said.

Even with the overcrowded jail and the depleted staff, O'Fallon said he's passionate about his work. It's a career he first became interested in because of his father.

"My dad was a sheriff's deputy in Great Falls for 40 years, and so that kind of got me started with the whole thing," O'Fallon said. "I wanted to follow in his footsteps and once I got into it I realized I loved it."

And there's nothing he loves more than witnessing people getting their life back on track.

"You're always going to have those success stories, where somebody says, 'This is the last time I'm in here,' and it really is their last time," O'Fallon said. "Those are the times that make you feel good."