HELENA — The Montana State Prison is losing staff faster than it can replace them, which prompted lawmakers at an interim legislative committee Tuesday to call for a meeting with the Governor and corrections officials.
In about the last 10 months the prison lost 166 employees and hired 106, a leader of the Montana State Prison union told the Law and Justice Interim Committee. The Federation of Montana State Prison Employees negotiated a $2 an hour raise for employees, which took effect at the end of March. However, since then more than 20 employees have quit.
“While the $2 an hour raise does help,” said union president Aaron Meaders. “It has helped with recruitment, it has not helped with retention at all.”
In January, Montana Department of Corrections Director Brian Gootkin told lawmakers the prison’s attrition rate was about 23% over a three-year period. Gootkin acknowledged 2021 was worse than previous years and overtime costs would be about $800,000 more than budgeted.
After Meaders spoke Tuesday, Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said he agreed with another's characterization of the Montana State Prison as a “pressure cooker.”
“We’ve been addressing this now for several months,” McGillvray said. “…I’m at the point where I have very grave concerns about what’s happening at the prison.”
McGillvray said the committee should meet with Gov. Greg Gianforte, Gootkin and the warden at the Montana State Prison to address the issue with more depth. Committee Chair Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, said committee staff would work to schedule a meeting with DOC leadership.
Cost to call
The interim committee also discussed a drafted bill to cap the cost of calls for incarcerated people across the state. Gregg Trude, a formerly incarcerated person, testified about the burden the high costs of calls place on people in Montana’s jails and prisons. Trude was convicted of negligent homicide in the shooting death of Helena Dr. Eugene “Buzz” Walton after a 2018 hunting trip.
Trude was housed in several facilities while serving his sentence. He often let other people use his phone account to make calls.
“And the look on their face was, their whole countenance changed when they had the ability to reach out,” Trude said. “To talk to their kids, to talk to their wife, to talk to their mom.”
The drafted legislation would set the cost for calls at 10 cents per minute across all detention facilities in the state.
The interim committee will meet again in June.