DEER LODGE — About a dozen Montana State Prison employees picketed the secure facility Friday to raise public awareness about working conditions.
"We wanted to do an information picket," said Cathy Clark, president of the prison employee union. "So the public knows how dangerous and how hostile the work environment had been out here."
For about a year, the Montana Department of Corrections has struggled to retain and recruit correctional officers at MSP. Staffing problems have strained DOC's relationship with the prison employee union, the Federation of Montana State Prison Employees Local 4700. At the end of July, a frustrated correctional officer tried to get kidnapping charges brought against his supervisors after the officer said a member of command staff kept him locked in a control cage for about 20-30 minutes after his shift in an attempt to force him into an additional shift. Prison officials have denied the officer's characterization of the incident.
For about three and a half hours the picketers stood at the intersection of Conley Lake Road and Old Stage Road in Deer Lodge. The employees could not picket on state land, Clark said. However, the National Labor Relations Board requires picketing to be done outside the entity union members are protesting, she said. This meant the informational picket meant to gather public support was held about a mile and a half east of the prison and two mile west of the Deer Lodge city center. While a handful of people honked while driving past the demonstrators, prison staff often waved signs at an empty road.
Staff at the demonstration described the prison's upper management as unresponsive to employee concerns and dismissive. Others complained about how mental health technicians could not provide services the prison is required to offer to people serving sentences.
Inmate production officer Kevin Hart works at the prison for Montana Correctional Enterprises, which is the state-owned business run out of the prison and dependent on the labor of incarcerated people. Hart participated in the demonstration Friday. In his almost two decades working at the prison, Hart said he's never seen staff so unhappy. Management and staff aren't working together, he said. No one believes in what management is doing because DOC leadership doesn't communicate, Hart said.
In response to questions about the picket Monday, Montana Department of Corrections Director Brian Gootkin said, in an emailed statement, he makes regular visits to the prison.
"The vast majority of the staff I visit with are overwhelmingly positive," Gootkin said. "And excited about the direction we are heading and appreciate the support and communication they receive from their leadership."
Both Gootkin and Public Safety Chief Jim Anderson have testified before interim legislative committees about the department’s struggle to hire correctional officers. At a prison board meeting in June, Montana State Women’s Prison also reported difficulty hiring staff, and the women’s prison was down 15 correctional officers at the time.
Crossroads Correctional Center, which is a private prison that DOC contracts with, also reported hiring issues and said it was bringing in correctional officers from out-of-state. When Crossroads’ has a vacant position for more than 90 days, DOC can penalize the company by withholding contract funds. As of Aug. 2, the DOC had withheld about $390,000 in fiscal year 2022.
At a May meeting of the State Legislature’s Interim Law and Justice Committee, state Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, noted his grave concerns about the “pressure cooker” situation at the state prison in Deer Lodge.