DEER LODGE — An escape from Montana State Prison this summer that ended in the shooting death of the inmate in Billings has prompted prison officials to tighten security procedures and search tactics.
Warden Leroy Kirkegard said the tragic outcome of the July escape drove him to review policies in dealing with potential escapes.
Dean Randolph Jess, 42, escaped from the prison on July 1, and remained on the run until he was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in Billings five days later.
Kirkegard said Thursday that he and his staff reviewed the entire situation in order to fix problems and address weaknesses in the system. If another escape should occur, Kirkegard wants his staff to be prepared.
The warden said he deeply regrets this summer’s escape, which was the first since he took charge of the prison in November 2011.
“I take it personally,” Kirkegard said. “I don’t like putting the citizens of Montana at risk and I don’t like putting law enforcement at risk.”
The prison has an inmate population of just over 1,400. Of that, 192 inmates are part of the work re-entry center, and are allowed to work on the prison’s 38,000-acre ranch. Inmates earn the privilege of being a part of this workforce by demonstrating a history of good behavior. These inmates are treated as “trusties,” although Kirkegard said “trusty” is an outdated term.
“We had to learn the hard way that you can’t trust anybody in prison,” he said.
Jess certainly gave no indication that he was planning to abscond.
Investigators spoke with his cellmate and other inmates and were told Jess didn’t say anything about planning an escape, according to Kirkegard. No evidence was found in his cell and the last phone call he made from the prison was in May, more than a month before his escape. No clear motive was found for his escape, except, perhaps, that he was serving a long sentence, the warden said.
The warden plans to hold more training exercises to prepare for an escape. One problem with the last escape was the lack of available maps of the area around the prison.
Kirkegard said he has since acquired updated maps.
Communication was another problem during the July search. Not all the police radios from the various law enforcement departments were connecting. They often had to resort to communicating via cellphone, but even that was spotty in the remote areas.
Since 1991, 41 inmates have escaped from Montana State Prison.