DEER LODGE — A Montana State Prison correctional officer wants charges brought against two of his superiors after he said they kept him locked in a guard cage for about 20-30 minutes after his shift ended.
Anthony Cotton told the Powell County Sheriff’s Office in a report filed July 28, that a member of command staff at the Montana State Prison told a unit sergeant not to let Cotton out of a control cage when his shift was done.
“He said they told him not to send anyone down,” Cotton said. “I said ‘They can’t do that.’ And that I would like him to send somebody down now because I’m not staying.”
According to Cotton’s report, the incident happened on July 25, about five days before the Montana State Prison switched to 12-hour shifts. The changing of shift schedules ended holdover shifts, said Alexandria Klapmeier, a Montana Department of Corrections spokesperson. The rejiggering of the schedule was one of several solutions DOC leadership proposed as it tries to manage under staffing at the prison. However, some correctional officers said the 12-hour shift is problematic and management is not doing enough to support staff during a difficult time.
In an email to MTN News Thursday, Klapmeier did not address the report filed by Cotton, but said, “if a staff member refuses to stay for a shift, they are free to leave.”
Someone did relieve Cotton, he said. But after he left the prison he sent a coworker a text and said he was “Seriously at a mental break down,” because of prison management. The day before, Cotton said prison command staff had also tried to force him to stay for another shift.
“I was very angry,” Cotton said. “And mentally I was pretty much done with them.”
Cotton is about two and a half years from being able to quit his prison job and keep his retirement benefits, he said. He was nervous about what filing charges against his bosses might mean for his future at the prison, he said. But the night his superiors tried to keep him hostage at the prison, he said he’d finally had enough.
As of Thursday, the Powell County Sheriff’s Office had Cotton’s case open, but no charges had been filed.
Both DOC Director Brian 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 said 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.
People continue to leave their prison jobs, said Cathy Clark, president of the Montana State Prison employee union. At a union meeting Tuesday, Clark said three people put in their two weeks notice earlier that day.
“The last time I calculated it was 158 (correctional officers), last year it was 296,” Clark said. “That should tell you how outnumbered they are.”
Clark began working for the Montana State Prison in the mail room about 14 years ago. Employee morale is at an all-time low, she said.
During the union meeting, employees joked about how the 12-hour shift was supposed to solve everything. Many had issues with how the shift change was implemented, highlighting how no one was given additional vacation hours, despite now having to take 12 hours of vacation to cover a shift where they used to take just eight hours. If an employee had 32 hours of vacation, their paid leave goes from four days to about two and a half, Klapmeier acknowledged.
However, Klapmeier pointed out the changes to the shift schedule means employees go from working 10 days out of each pay period to working seven days.
Employees also said they have struggled to get breaks during their shifts, which can be even more frustrating when a shift is 12 hours long. On Aug. 9, a correctional officer filed an incident report after they said they’d done an 11-hour shift with no break.
“The DOC provides staff with breaks throughout the day,” Klapmeier said. “With the exception of during a facility emergency.”
The DOC does not comment on staffing numbers, Klapmeier said. However, they’ve acknowledged the staffing issues at the prison and are working to manage the issue with existing staff and expanded recruitment work, she said. The safety and security of the public, staff and the people serving sentences at the prison is the “top priority of the DOC,” Klapmeier said.
However, Clark said management is not listening to staff concerns and the situation is dangerous. Employees are frustrated, but so are the incarcerated people inside the prison, Clark said.
“They’re not getting yard, they’re not getting mental health services like they’re supposed to,” Clark said. “So, it’s a pressure cooker.”