Prison officer alleged ‘kidnapping’ as friction between staff and management heats up | 406 Politics
A police report filed about a ‘forced detainee’ to stay after his shift ended – which a corrections officer likened to a kidnapping – illustrates the temperature of contention between employees and management of the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge.
Although no charges are likely to arise from Anthony Cotton’s report to law enforcement, he claimed that on July 25 at 10 p.m. he was not allowed out of the control cage because he was detained for another shift. It was the second time in two days that this had happened.
Prison staffing is a long-simmering issue. Corrections officials say their hands are tied by a limited staff and small pool of potential hires needed to fulfill a prison’s public safety responsibilities. Employees, meanwhile, say their own safety and mental health feel threatened by the situation.
When Cotton was allegedly held in the prison admissions unit known as the “cage”, he called his union representative to seek confirmation that the enforced hold was a violation of the employee’s collective bargaining agreement with the department. Montana Corrections. At 10:30 p.m., a rescue officer arrived and Cotton was released.
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Cotton then filed a police report with the Powell County Sheriff, and County Attorney Kathryn McEnery told the Montana State Press Office on Wednesday that the case did not appear to be criminal and was most likely a work problem.
MTN News first reported on Cotton’s report to law enforcement.
In a phone interview this week, Montana State Prison Employees Federation Local 4700 president Cathy Clark said prison workers are suffering from the conditions there.
“Prison workers have some of the highest rates of PTSD of any profession,” Clark said. “When you have PTSD, you can’t put someone in a cage where they can’t get out on their own. It will destroy you.”
“(Cotton) has been an officer there for 17 years,” she added. “There is no reason to treat officers, especially seasoned officers, this way.”
It’s unclear if the Department of Corrections launched an internal investigation into the Cotton incident or if it was an example of a staffing issue, given that a back-up officer was available for the job. of Cotton. A ministry spokesperson did not respond to those questions on Wednesday.
In an emailed statement, manager Jim Salmonsen criticized Cotton’s filing of a police report.
“On the day in question, it took a few extra minutes to release Correctional Officer Cotton from his locked workplace inside the prison,” the warden wrote. “It is disappointing that he is wasting scarce criminal justice resources in his attempt to turn a shift he worked a few minutes longer – for which he was paid overtime – into a complaint of kidnapping for crime.”
“Nothing of this magnitude”
Detention frustrations aren’t limited to Cotton’s shifts. Four grievances have been filed over forced detentions and schedule changes without negotiation since the union signed a new contract with the Department of Corrections in late March. According to Clark, the local union voted to go ahead with all grievances and begin the arbitration process.
The forced detentions themselves were a symptom of the broader staffing crisis at Montana State Prison. County jails in the most populated cities pay well above the starting salary of rural Deer Lodge jail. In May, Clark’s predecessor said the prison had hired 106 people since July 2021, but 166 left through resignation, retirement or other exit. Salmonsen told reporters during a June tour of the prison “we’ve had a staffing problem for 10 years, but nothing of this magnitude.”
It came after the department signed a new contract with the union, which gave $2 raises to corrections officers like Cotton. The issue has also prompted lawmakers to meet with Gov. Greg Gianforte to find solutions. The Department of Corrections created a committee to address recruiting and retention issues at the Montana State Prison, while continuing to deploy recruiters to job fairs and train employees from different facilities to build a workforce. The department did not respond to a question Wednesday asking for an update on the committee’s work.
The stakes are high for correctional officers who have remained in the reduced ranks, Clark said. At the facility of 1,600 inmates, Clark’s latest tally had 158 correctional officers, down from 296 a year earlier. This means that the movement of inmates around the facility slows to accommodate what officers are able to do safely, while activities like hobbies and court time may come to a complete halt.
“(Officers) can’t perform cell searches like they’re supposed to,” Clark said. “Inmates, some of them don’t get mental health treatment. The things they should be getting make it all look like a pressure cooker. It’s extremely dangerous.”
In June, the Department of Corrections said it was eliminating forced detentions by moving from eight-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts. The change came after Cotton’s report to law enforcement, but the announcement was reason enough for Aaron Meaders, who had been union president for nearly two years and a vocal critic of the change, to resign and quit. prison after eight years.
“I couldn’t adapt to that and go on with the bad working conditions and everything without a real plan to fix things,” Meaders said.
Meaders was a mental health care technician, a specialist in the tapestry of positions that make up the prison workforce. He said that after he submitted his two-week notice, no one in his chain of command made an effort to change his mind.
“In my opinion, it was a very accurate portrayal of them not doing what they say they are doing, trying to keep people,” he said, pointing to the recruiting and retention efforts made by the Department of Corrections.
“The culture has to change,” Meaders added. “If you were the CEO of a company and 166 people quit in a year, the board would have fired you.”
The workforce issues mirror in some ways the situation at the state psychiatric hospital, which earlier this year reported that vacancies among its registered nurses reached 70%. But that facility has been able to rely on itinerant or contract staff to fill gaps in its permanent workforce, a pool of employees the prison cannot tap into.
While some lawmakers have floated the idea of the state activating its National Guard to keep staffing levels where they need to be, DOC officials have pushed back on the idea, saying the type of work soldiers could contribute would always fall short of the necessary functions in vacant posts at the prison.
But like staff at the state hospital late last year, Clark blames the dwindling workforce and incidents like Cotton’s continued existence on management responsibility. The union and management are still discussing the 12-hour shift requirement with the department, and Clark said it could violate the collective agreement signed earlier this year. While she said she was told change was needed in the current emergency, Clark said there was nothing sudden about the workforce crisis.
“It’s 100% a management issue,” she said. “Their personnel issues are not considered ’emergencies’. Emergencies are unforeseen. They have refused to address this issue.
A Department of Corrections spokesperson did not respond to Clark’s comment.