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Corrections officer alleged 'kidnapping' as friction between staff, management heats up

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A police report filed over a "forced holdover" to stay after his shift ended — something a correctional officer equated to kidnapping — illustrates the temperature of discord between employees and management at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.

While 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 wasn't allowed out of the control cage because he was being held for another shift. It was the second time in two days that happened.

Staffing at the prison has been a long-simmering problem. Corrections leaders say their hands are tied by limited staff and a small pool of potential hires needed to carry out the public safety responsibilities of a prison. Employees, meanwhile, argue their own safety and mental health feel at risk because of the situation.

When Cotton was allegedly kept in the prison's intake unit known as the "cage," he called his union representative to get confirmation that the forced holdover was a violation of the employees' collective bargaining agreement with the Montana Department of Corrections. By 10:30 p.m., a relief officer arrived and Cotton was released.

Cotton later filed a police report with the Powell County sheriff, and County Attorney Kathryn McEnery told the Montana State News Bureau on Wednesday the matter did not appear criminal and was most likely a labor issue.

MTN News first reported on Cotton's report to law enforcement.

In a phone interview this week, Federation of Montana State Prison Employees Local 4700 union president Cathy Clark said prison employees are suffering in the conditions there.

"Prison employees have some of the highest rates of PTSD of any profession out there," Clark said. "When you have PTSD, you cannot lock someone in a cage where they can't get out on their own. That will destroy you."

"(Cotton) has been an officer out there for 17 years," she added. "There's no reason to treat officers, especially seasoned officers, that way."

It's unclear if the Department of Corrections launched an internal investigation into the Cotton incident or whether this was an example of the staffing issue, considering a relief officer was available for Cotton's post. A spokesperson for the department did not respond to those questions on Wednesday.

In an emailed statement, Warden Jim Salmonsen was critical of Cotton filing a police report.

"On the day in question, it took a few extra minutes to relieve Correctional Officer Cotton from his locked work location inside the prison," the warden wrote. "It is disappointing that he is wasting limited criminal justice resources in his attempt to turn a shift he worked a few minutes longer — for which he was paid overtime — into a felony kidnapping complaint."

'Nothing to this magnitude'

The frustrations over holdovers are not limited to Cotton's shifts. Four grievances have been filed over the forced holdovers and changes in scheduling without bargaining since the union signed a new contract with the Department of Corrections in late March. According to Clark, the local union voted to move ahead with all of the grievances and begin the arbitration process. 

The forced holdovers themselves were a symptom of the wider staffing crisis at Montana State Prison. County jails in more populous cities pay well above the starting salary of the prison in rural Deer Lodge. In May, Clark's predecessor said the prison had hired 106 people since July 2021, but 166 have left through resignations, retirement or another exit. Salmonsen told reporters during a tour of the prison in June "we've had a staffing issue for 10 years, but nothing to this magnitude."

This came after the department signed a new contract with the union, which gave $2 raises for correctional officers like Cotton. The problem also prompted lawmakers to huddle with Gov. Greg Gianforte about finding solutions. The Department of Corrections has established a committee to address recruitment and retention issues at Montana State Prison, while it continues to deploy recruiters to career fairs and cross-train employees from different facilities to patch together 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 thinning ranks, Clark said. At the 1,600-inmate facility, Clark's latest tally counted 158 correctional officers, down from 296 a year earlier. That means movement of inmates within the facility slows down to meet what officers are capable of doing safely, while activities like recreation and yard time may be put on halt altogether.

A system of multi-layer fencing and gates divides Montana State Prison

A system of multi-layer fencing and gates divides Montana State Prison into multiple housing areas from low-security to high-security.

"(Officers) cannot do cell searches like they're supposed to do," Clark said. "The inmates, some of them aren't getting mental health treatment. The things they should be getting just makes that whole thing like a pressure cooker. It's extremely dangerous."

In June, the Department of Corrections said it was doing away with forced holdovers by switching from eight-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts. The change took place after Cotton's report to law enforcement, but the announcement was enough reason for Aaron Meaders, who had been union president for nearly two years and was a vocal critic of the change, to resign and leave the prison after eight years. 

"I couldn't accommodate that and continue with the poor working conditions and everything else going on with no 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 upon submitting his two-week notice, no one within his chain of command made an effort to change his mind.

"In my opinion, it was a very accurate representation of them not doing what they say they're doing, trying to keep people," he said, pointing to the recruitment and retention efforts espoused by the Department of Corrections.

"The culture needs to change," Meaders added. "If you were the CEO of a company and had 166 people quit in one year, the board of directors would have fired your ass."

Artwork is found throughout the Montana State Prison complex.

Artwork is found throughout the Montana State Prison complex.

The workforce troubles in some ways mirror the situation at the state's psychiatric hospital, which earlier this year reported vacancies among its registered nurses to be as high as 70%. But that facility was able to lean on traveling or contract staff to augment holes in its permanent workforce, an employee pool the prison isn't able to draw from. 

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 against the idea, contending the type of work soldiers could contribute would still fall short of the functions needed in vacant posts at the prison.

But like the state hospital's staff late last year, Clark lays the blame for the dwindling workforce and incidents like the Cotton holdover at management's feet. The union and management are still discussing the 12-hour shift requirement with the department, and Clark said it could violate the collective bargaining agreement signed earlier this year. While she said she was told the change is necessary in the current emergency, Clark said there's nothing sudden about the workforce crisis.

"It's 100% a management problem," she said. "Their staffing problems are not considered 'emergencies.' Emergencies are unforeseen. They've refused to fix this."

A Department of Corrections spokesperson did not respond to Clark's comment.

Montana State News Bureau

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