Walking the line

May 29, 2006 / Comments (0)



Correctional officers keep us safe, despite danger & low pay.


Correctional officers at Montana State Prison put their lives on the line every day. Some days, that line is thinner than others.


Such a day occurred for MEA-MFT member Nick Carter on May 11, 2006. Officer Carter was patrolling the perimeter of the prison outside Deer Lodge. Officers call it “riding the perimeter.”


That was the day a troubled man with a violent history named Ron Violette drove his car to the prison, told the checkpoint officer he was an attorney, then roared past the checkpoint and into a secure area.


When Carter confronted Violette, the man rammed his car into Carter’s patrol truck.


Carter stepped out of the truck, and Violette rammed into him, pinning him between the vehicles.


Correctional officers don’t carry weapons unless they’re riding the perimeter or in the towers. Carter had a sidearm that day. Thinking quickly, he shot Violette in the arm. Violette eventually was caught and charged with attempted murder, two counts of felony criminal endangerment, felony criminal mischief, and misdemeanor criminal trespass.


Carter went back to work with an injured knee, a leg brace, and a special honor – Employee of the Quarter for Security.


“Officer Carter’s decisive response to this very dangerous situation is a tribute to the courage and integrity he brings to the job,” said Kerry Bruner, human resources specialist at the prison.


Just another day in the life of a correctional officer.


“Our officers’ lives are at risk every day,” said MEA-MFT Field Consultant Tom Burgess, who works with the local union. “Montanans should know they have highly trained professionals protecting them at the prison.”


Correctional officers at the prison have one of the most important jobs in the state-keeping prisoners where they can’t hurt Montana citizens.

It’s also one of the toughest jobs in the state. “Inmates have been known to throw feces and urine at the officers and spit at them,” Burgess said. “There’s AIDS and tuberculosis down there.”


Tough working conditions and low pay make it difficult to recruit and retain officers. “The turnover is constant,” said Bob Anez, communications director for the Montana Department of Corrections. “It’s typical in public service – the people with the most difficult jobs often get the lowest pay.”


Making recruitment even more difficult, the number of available workers in the Deer Lodge area has declined since the days when the Anaconda smelter and Butte mines were in full operation.


At the same time, the prison population has expanded-from around 850 a decade ago to almost 1,500 today, according to Burgess.


“There isn’t necessarily more crime, just less tolerance for it,” he said. Meth is a huge factor. So is Montana’s “three-strikes-and-out” rule. Citizens are less willing to have inmates reintroduced into society.


Small steps forward


Despite these obstacles, the prison was able to hire nearly 200 new officers in the last three years, thanks in part to MEA-MFT. “We turned a corner somewhat in the last couple of years because we got the starting salary up to $12 an hour instead of $10.57,” Burgess explained.


MEA-MFT also spearheaded a move to get correctional officers into a 20-year retirement plan instead of 30 years and settled a wage claim that resulted in another pay increase for officers.


Correctional Officer Keith Isaacson works the third shift at the prison-10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. He said the shift is a bit more “laid back” than others because prisoners are locked down.


But Isaacson still has plenty to worry about. As president of the Federation of Montana State Prison Employees, Local #4700, the safety and well being of his members are constantly on his mind.


Despite recent improvements in pay, the prison is still 30 to 50 officers short, according to Isaacson. That results in lots of mandatory overtime; officers must still be alert and do the job right.


“If you bring wages up and benefits up, you might find 60 or 70 people to choose from for these jobs, instead of four,” Isaacson said.


“I appreciate [management’s] position. They’ve only got so much money. But somewhere along the line, somebody’s got to step up. Maybe it’ll be the governor.”


Despite the challenges, the job does have its rewards. “We are keeping the guard out for Montana’s worst people so they don’t get out and harm innocent bystanders,” Isaacson said. “I’ve made some good friends. We’re kind of like brothers and sisters out there. If you don’t have a team mentality, someone could get hurt.”


While the job doesn’t call for heroism on the level of Officer Nick Carter’s every day, it does call for professionalism, courage, and dedication.


“These correctional officers are some of the finest people I know,” said Tom Burgess. “These people put their lives at risk every day.”


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