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Possible Montana State Prison strike brewing as union, state return to negotiations
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Possible Montana State Prison strike brewing as union, state return to negotiations

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Montana State Prison

Prisoners walk into a unit at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge in this file photo.

A possible strike is brewing at the Montana State Prison as the employees’ unions continue negotiations with the state Corrections Department on Thursday.

The Federation of Montana State Prison Employees Local 4700 announced earlier this month its members had voted on Aug. 10 60-0 to engage in concerted activity, a step toward a potential strike, to address what the union calls inadequate pay, poor and unsafe working conditions, and long hours. The announcement added that some staff suffer harassment, threats, retaliation and bullying "on a daily basis."

Some of those complaints have been borne out publicly. Montana State Prison Warden Jim Salmonsen told a legislative budget committee in January low pay has led to staffing shortages that in turn required the prison to close programs like the gym and visitation center as resources are rotated to fill gaps. The Department of Corrections paid out a $250,000 settlement to a former prison guard in April who said he faced discrimination and retaliation in 2016 for his post-traumatic stress disorder. And in May, a correctional officer survived being repeatedly stabbed in the face and arm while transporting an inmate alone.

FMSPE President Aaron Meaders said Monday the union has been proposing solutions to these troubles since its first meeting with the state in June. On Thursday, the union meets for their second meeting with Department of Corrections officials to continue negotiations.

“The Federation is willing to do what we must to satisfy the employee’s needs, which includes but is not limited to continuing the process of possible concerted activity,” Meaders said in an email on Monday.

Corrections spokesperson Carolynn Bright said Monday the agency was “disappointed” to learn of the union’s unanimous vote earlier this month to move toward a possible strike.

“Department leadership continues to work with the union following the agreed-upon process for contract negotiations,” Bright said. “In the near future, we hope to arrive at an agreement that meets the needs of all parties involved, ensuring public safety, inmate security and employee satisfaction. The safety of our staff remains of utmost importance to the DOC.”

Bright said the DOC does have a contingency staffing plan in place to ensure effective functions at the prison, although declined to further comment on the plan, citing security concerns.

The starting salary for a correctional officer at Montana State Prison is $16.46. Employee salary data available online show that’s the wage of the correctional officer who was stabbed multiple times after escorting Dante Kirpal Kier to the prison’s infirmary, according to charging documents filed in Powell County District Court. The alleged assault on the prison guard has not previously been reported.

On May 24, Kier tried verbally confronting the officer about recently being written up. The officer refused to discuss the matter, so, according to the affidavit, Kier pulled a knife fashioned from an outlet cover and stabbed the officer in the jaw. Kier repeatedly stabbed the officer in the shoulder and wrist before he was subdued, according to court documents.

Kier pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the attack, including attempted deliberate homicide, in July.

Greg Frazer, a medical technician at Montana State Prison, said the stabbing was an example of the unsafe working conditions set out by staffing shortages. Concerns about safety due to those shortages are sometimes brushed aside by prison brass, he alleged.

“That’s part of the job, is making sure we’re backing each other up,” Frazer said. “That assault may not have happened if there was more staff here.”

Frazer is a Republican state representative for Deer Lodge, but spoke to the Montana State News Bureau only in his capacity as a prison employee.

Indeed, there is an element of danger in working at the prison. But the complaints brought by staff also include more fundamental issues, like bathroom breaks. Meaders said a female correctional officer was denied a break to use a bathroom for three hours while the command post opened the inmate gym and yard, instead.

“Transportation officers who take inmates around the state are told they cannot stop anywhere to use the bathroom,” Meaders said.

The union’s statement claims some correctional officers work up to 40 hours of overtime in a two-week period, usually 16 hours at a time and sometimes on days off. Salmonsen, the prison warden, did not comment on the union’s assertions for this article, but described the dimensions of the staffing shortage in January to a legislative budget subcommittee.

“Imagine looking forward to your shift ending and half an hour before you go home you get a phone call saying you have to stay for another eight hours,” he said.

Recruiting and retaining staff, he said, “has been and will always be a challenge for MSP.”

Deer Lodge is a small workforce pool from which to draw, he said during the hearing, which requires recruitment from surrounding communities such as Butte, Anaconda, Missoula and Helena. The starting wage has hurt retention, as well.

“Sadly it is all too common for us to hire a new correctional officer, invest in his or her training only to see them move on to a higher paying job at a county detention facility after they become POST (training) certified,” Salmonsen told the committee.

The starting wage did not increase by the time the Legislature adjourned in April. But the DOC did leave the session with more resources in hand to address the workforce shortage outside secure facilities; one probation officer said he alone was supervising 113 people. The Legislature approved funding for 10 more probation officers and four pre-sentence investigation writers.

In January, Salmonsen told lawmakers the prison's recruitment solutions included more strategic advertising, attendance at job fairs, sharing stories about inmate success and staff accomplishments. Within the facility, Salmonsen said staff is working through training and education to change the culture and thinking about how staff interacts with people incarcerated at the prison. 

Meaders said Monday the union is working toward potential fixes to the additional harassment, threats, retaliation and bullying by the command staff, but declined to offer further information ahead of Thursday's negotiations. 

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