Five months ago the Montana State Prison began a pilot program for reservation-based visitations that require pre-registration. Prison officials say average monthly visits have increased, but a handful of people say the change presents more challenges to seeing their family members at the facility.
Lynn Guyer, the warden at Montana State Prison, told an interim legislative committee Monday the prison decided to test an online visitation reservation system, operated through CenturyLink, to replace the first-come, first-serve system used for decades.
Associate Warden DJ Godfrey said the change came out of an attempt to make it less difficult for people to visit friends and family at the prison, and increase facility security.
“We wanted to increase overall visiting opportunities for Montana State Prison, so due to the staffing and other things we had to consider we went to another system that increased visitation from two to four days at MSP,” Godfrey said. “We also wanted to improve the efficiency, and MSP staff knew who was coming in and exiting the facility.”
Under the pilot system, those who want to visit people at the prison must apply and be approved. Then they sign up at a website operated by CenturyLink for a service that allows them to schedule visits. That can also be done by phone.
Visits must be scheduled at least seven days in advance and up to 30 days. Visitors can reserve one two-hour slot each week. Any slots that are not reserved are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
The prison's website shows vising times Thursday-Saturday and prison officials said visitation is four days a week. But those who testified in front of state lawmakers Monday said the only days they could schedule visits were Saturday and Sunday. The Corrections department said in an email Wednesday it has four visitation days, however.
The new system also facilitates video visitation, though there is a fee for that.
In the first five months of the pilot, the prison had 1,291 contact visits, 1,766 video visits and 226 special visits for people visiting from very far away, Godfrey said. That worked out to an average of 657 visitors a month, where before the new system was put in place, the average was 389 a month, he said.
Corrections officials did not respond to an email sent Tuesday afternoon trying to better understand how much of the increase in average monthly visits was due to video visits over the pilot period.
Though the prison said visitation has increased, Guyer acknowledged concerns raised Monday.
“As with any new program, we recognize there is room for improvement,” Godfrey said. “There’s been a learning curve with visitors and the DOC continues to address that.”
Richard Shreves, of Helena, told lawmakers his son has been in state prison 15 years and he wasn't notified about the changes to visiting.
“I can tell you as far as visits right now, there are a lot of unhappy people and sad people that don’t understand the system. I think it boils down to the idea that the combination that the Department of Corrections and the state prison and those of us that have loved ones in the prison system don’t ever hear about the changes until we arrive at the front gate and go in to visit and then we hear about the change,” Shreves said. He added that the only notification he saw of the change was at the front desk of the reception area.
Godfrey said the department is working to get better instructional materials to visitors, both online and in hard copy at the prison, as well as by offering a phone number for people to call to get help.
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Janee Weber, a Billings business owner, raised concerns about those who do not have internet access or smartphones and can't figure out how to navigate the new reservation system.
Marsha Stock said her son has been in prison for about 10 years and she tries to spend every weekend visiting him.
“Now we’re bound by a two-hour visit and then hopefully getting an extra day,” Stock said. She told lawmakers she recently had a scheduled visit for Saturday that was canceled but she was not given a chance to come Sunday, though she later found out there were openings.
Those who testified also questioned why the number of tables for visitation was reduced from 20 to 14. Corrections officials said Wednesday there are 14 tables for low-side visitors, eight tables for high-side visitors, six tables for work release center visitors and two for treatment center visitors. Thursdays are dedicated to high-side visitation and Fridays for low-side visitation. On the weekends all 30 tables are available they said. High and low side refer to ranges of supervision.
"The decision to reduce the number of tables was based on improving security, Corrections spokeswoman Carolynn Bright said in a email Wednesday.
Corrections Deputy Director Cynthia Wolken said a major reason visitations get canceled is staffing shortages.
“Unfortunately when visitation gets canceled due to lack of staffing, there’s no way to notify people ahead of time because typically you won’t know until the day of,” Wolken said. “It creates hardship for families all over the state and of course our inmates are upset. It is never a situation that we want to be in and we always try to balance services and connections to the families with the security of the institution.”
Wolken said the prison has to staff mandatory posts such as the housing unit, infirmary and other constitutionally obligated care.
“If we are not able to staff visitation because of recruitment issues and retention issues, that’s an issue,” Wolken said. The Corrections Department is working with the governor’s budget office on the possibility of a pay increase for corrections officers. Officers' starting pay is $15.31 an hour, which Wolken said is regionally low.
Bright said in an email Tuesday that there were 34 vacant correctional officer positions at the facility that day.
The prison is also looking at additional methods of alerting scheduled visitors when visitation is canceled, including text messages and posting information on the department’s social media sites, Godfrey said. He added that the prison prioritizes visits and cancels other things like recreation time, tool shops and education classes before visitation.
Monica Sayler said her son has been in the prison for 13 months and they’ve only been able to manage two visits, one in person and one over video, in that time. She said she and her husband have to board their animals, find someone to watch their property and arrange care for a dependent parent before making the four-hour drive to Helena. She said she's only been able to reserve visits on Saturday and Sunday through the website, and given how far she has to travel, she'd like to see longer visits or a guarantee of visiting blocks.
“Especially in the state of Montana, travel is always great distances,” Sayler said. “Why is visiting limited at all? If there’s a place at the table, anyone should be able to come visit.”
Guyer, the warden, said the prison's goal is to avoid having inmate grievances related to visiting. In the most recent fiscal year there were just 12 out of 369 formal grievances related to visitation. He said, though, that there are non-formal complaints when people can’t get in for visits.
“That said, and understandable, we do receive complaints when we do need to cancel visitation,” Guyer said.
“Unfortunately visitation at MSP cannot take place whens staffing levels do not allow it. Safety and security of the facility must be maintained. We are working hard to fill open positions at the facility but this continues to be a challenge that will affect visitation into the foreseeable future.”