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MSP Needs Correctional Officers

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On Monday, July 1, all state employees will get a three percent raise. It's part of bill passed in the last legislative session. While some raise is good, many state employees say they deserve more. It's a problem affecting state employees from maintenance crews to correctional officers.

Montana State Prison Warden Leroy Kirkegard just got through his first legislative session in Montana. He testified before the state's governing body asking for a pay raise for correctional officers among other things.

"It's always a very hard sell," he said.

Kirkegard has worked in corrections for the last three decades and said he knows getting funding for prisons is tough.

"We do a good job. That's part of the problem. We're not in the papers everyday for escapes or people getting beat up," he said.

Correctional officers currently start at $12.57 per hour, which was the market rate in 2006. Kirkegard asked to bring that rate up to 2010 standards of $13.70 an hour, a nine percent raise. Instead all correctional officers, like all state employees, will see a three percent increase in pay July first. It's a decision that made some walk off the job.

"Morale was an issue right after the session," Kirkegard said. "When I spoke in front of the legislative subcommittee I had 27 (openings for COs on staff). Sitting here today, I've got 45 vacant positions now."

45 openings in a staff of 347 correctional officers. Kirkegard said the staff he has is required to work overtime to pick up the slack.

"My officers are getting tired," Kirkegard said. "They're having to work overtime, mandatory overtime. So it somebody's pegged to work an overtime shift that means 16 hours, plus they drove an hour to get here and have to drive an hour to get home."

He credits his staff for making the best of a tough situation. He's hoping the raise COs will see in July will help him hire more officers and keep those he already has happy. State employees will see an additional five percent raise in November of 2014.

Kirkegard also asked for $26 million to bring the low-security area of MSP out of the 1970s. He said the upgrades would have made the facility safer and allowed inmates more options for rehabilitation so they can be more accountable when they are released.

Each of the three sections of the low-security prison area was designed to house 92 inmates. By double bunking and converting storage closets, each now houses 162 inmates. Kirkegard said there is a waiting list to get into the low-security area where inmates have more freedom and the ability to take classes that could help them get jobs on the outside. That funding was denied.

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