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Guard Held Over His Shift at Short-Staffed Montana Prison Files Kidnapping Charges

by Jo Ellen Nott

On July 28, 2022, Montana State Prison (MSP) Anthony Cotton filed a complaint with local law enforcement accusing two prison supervisors of a “forced holdover,” after he was allegedly locked inside a guard cage in the prison a half-hour past his shift and not allowed to leave on July 25, 2022. The prison’s command staff had also tried to keep him past his shift the previous day, Cotton said.

“I was very angry,” he said. “And mentally I was pretty much done with them.”

The report was filed with the Powell County Sheriff’s Office, but County Attorney Kathryn McEnery told the Montana State News Bureau on August 17, 2022, that the incident was a labor issue, not a criminal matter. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections (DOC), Alexandria Klapmeier, said the prison went to 12-hour shifts at the end of July 2022, obviating the problem.

MSP Warden Jim Salmonsen found Cotton’s complaint unwarranted. In a statement released via email, he wrote: “It is disappointing that he is wasting limited criminal justice resources in his attempt to turn a shift he worked a few minutes longer — for which he was paid overtime — into a felony kidnapping complaint.”

Cathy Clark, president of MSP Employees Local 4700, said employees are suffering in short-staffed conditions at the prison. She pointed out that prison employees have high rates of PTSD, possibly a rationale for Cotton’s reaction to being locked in a cage. She defended the long-term employee  — Cotton has worked for seventeen years as a guard — and said there is no reason to lock a seasoned officer in an intake unit.  

Like most prison systems in the U.S., Montana’s DOC has been hit with staff shortages. In the rural Deer Lodge community where MSP sits, there is a small pool of potentially qualified candidates from which to hire. Clark said the forced holdover that Cotton experienced is symptomatic of the staffing crisis at the prison. Her predecessor, Aaron Meaders, said in May 2022 that MSP had hired 106 new staffers over the previous nine months but lost 166 to attrition. A month later, Warden Salmonsen reported that “we have had a staffing issue for 10 years, but nothing to this magnitude.”

Prison guards claim that their safety and mental health are at risk because of the shortage. Clark confirmed the risks are high for guards who have stayed in the dwindling ranks. At MSP, she said there are currently about 1,600 prisoners but only 158 guards, down from 296 just a year earlier. With reduced staff, prisoner movement within the facility has slowed down to what officers can do safely, and activities like recreation and yard time are reduced or cancelled, creating dangerous tensions inside the prison.

Sources:   Helena Independent Record, KTVH

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