HELENA — The Montana State Prison has 37 vacancies for correctional officers, and a pay raise is badly needed to help recruit and retain for what’s already a difficult job, the prison’s warden told a legislative budget panel Wednesday.
With so many vacancies, officers at the prison often are forced to work overtime and double-shifts, creating potential problems with safety and carrying out the prison’s mission of preparing inmates for successful release, said Leroy Kirkegard.
“Whether it’s a county jail, a municipal lockup or a maximum-security prison … the line staff is critical,” he said. “They are the first, the last and the most important interaction with the inmate.”
Without good work by this front-line staff, the prison won’t have good success reintegrating inmates back into society, he said.
The starting wage for correctional officers at the prison near Deer Lodge is $12.57 an hour, he said. The Bullock administration is proposing to raise the starting wage to about $13.30, and wages for other officers, at a cost of about $1.6 million over the next two years.
That amount is part of an overall $30 million, 8.5 percent increase sought by the Department of Corrections.
Kirkegard also told the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on the Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement and Justice that the agency wants approval to hire eight new additional correctional officers, to fill out its staff.
The joint House-Senate budget panel — the Legislature’s first step in examining and approving the state budget for the next two years — took no immediate action on the agency’s request. Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, said the panel may vote on the agency’s budget on Friday.
Gibson, a retired administrator from the Corrections Department, noted that the prison population is projected to be fairly steady the next couple of years, but the department is still asking for a substantial budget increase and eight new correctional officers.
“There’s just some disconnect here,” he said.
Gibson also noted how crime rates are level or declining, yet the prison population and the correctional budget have skyrocketed the past two decades.
“When both (inmates and parolees) grow, we have a problem,” he said. “There’s been a lot of growth in both areas. I just think we need to be conscious of that.”
Kirkegard said the prison needs about 355 correctional officers to fill all of the “posts” at Deer Lodge, but that 37 positions are vacant.
“Montana is the first place I’ve seen where I’ve seen officers having to work 16 hours on a shift,” he said. “It’s unheard of and it’s scary. …
“I walk the yard. I talk to the officers. I talk to the inmates. I meet with relatives who come to visit. I spend time on the phone with victims. I do what I can to make things better. This (pay raise) is a top priority for me.”
Kirkegard took over as warden at Montana State Prison in November 2011, having previously managed the sizeable Clark County Jail in Las Vegas, Nev.
Dan O’Fallon, who manages the regional prison in Cascade County, said its correctional officers start at $15.59 an hour, and that turnover isn’t a problem. The regional prison is locally run and contracts with the state.
“It has brought huge benefits by raising it to that level,” he said. “We don’t lose people because they’re not paid enough.”