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Night Moves: Third Shift Workers Unseen
By Bob Anez, Communications Director, Montana Department of Corrections
Published: 07/23/2012

Douglas night Graveyard shift – That work period when there’s sand behind your eyeballs and the world is creepily silent.

They arrive to a city of almost 1,500 sleeping souls. The sun has left the sky and a quiet stillness has settled over the 63-acre compound. Buildings, fences and sidewalks are bathed in the orange-yellow glow from hundreds of highpressure sodium lights.

Welcome to third shift at Montana State Prison. The staff begins work at 10 p.m. and heads home eight hours later. With inmates mostly in their cells for the night, no meals to be served and prison programs closed for the day, the shift has the fewest employees of the three shifts. The staff is composed of correctional officers and a few infirmary personnel.

Correctional officers at the prison are seldom in the public eye or citizens’ thoughts. They do their job behind a security fence and in locked housing units, mostly unseen and usually unappreciated for the work they do to maintain order and safety in the state’s largest prison.

But staff working the two day shifts do have opportunity to interact with the public on occasion. They deal with tours, service workers and visitors. Not third shift employees. They work while others sleep. They work in the solitude of night.

“I’m not a morning person,” says Kerrie Ross, a correctional officer who has worked third shift for three years. “I’m a night owl.” She says she has worked all three shifts at the prison and prefers the overnight hours.

“All the staff get along. We have a great command post,” Ross says. “I feel safe with these guys I work with. I know they have my back.” Coming to work at 10:00 has allowed her to attend her two teenage sons’ school and sports activities, and she has the flexibility to attend out-of-town events with them. Her partner works the night shift at the copper mine in Butte, so their schedules permit them to spend two weekends a month together.

Barry Malcolm has worked at the prison for 27½ years, the last four on third shift. He finds the quiet world and the camaraderie among staff appealing.

The shift usually is tranquil, with most of the inmates already in or heading for bed. But that doesn’t mean the staff isn’t busy. They deliver mail to the units, file classifica-tion documents, supervise showers in some units, oversee inmates doing general janito-rial work, tend to ailing inmates, conduct inmate counts, make hourly rounds, and search common areas of the prison such as dayrooms, kitchens, gyms and recreation yards.

But emergencies arise and the staff has to be ready. Inmates having middle-of-the-night mental health or medical troubles or becoming violent or disruptive require im-mediate attention. The staff must know first aid and methods for solving problems with a minimum of dis-ruption.

The third shifters also are used to inventory and store the property of inmates about to transfer to another se-cure facility.

Some on the night shift say the work is ideal because it leaves them with plenty of time to do chores during the daytime and that the work is never boring. Just when it seems all is quiet, something will happen to liven up the night.

“They rely on each other,” Maj. Tom Wood, who heads security at the prison, says of the third shift em-ployees. He says he wants the staff to stay busy, but that it can be a challenge to find tasks that are productive while not disrupting the sleeping inmates.

Officers recognize that their middle-of-the-night work, least seen by the public, probably goes unnoticed and unappre-ciated by citizens. But they also say that doesn’t diminish the importance of the role they play.

MSP Warden Leroy Kirkegard shares that view, but says it extends beyond the night owls of third shift.

“I often tell people that correctional staffers are the ‘unsung heroes’ in the criminal justice system,” he says. “They all work in an environment surrounded by convict-ed felons and are required to protect the public safety with little recognition or appreciation from the public they serve.

“The men and women working at correctional facilities don’t get the public accolades and exposure of their coun-terparts in law enforcement,” Kirkegard adds. “That is even more true for those on third shift. They don’t deal with the public, but still maintain a professional, commit-ted attitude when dealing with offenders. They do an ex-emplary job, unknown to the public they serve.”

Reprinted with permission: Montana DOC - Correctional Signpost 2012 No. 3

Other articles by Anez


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    The night might be riskier penitenciary personel if there are inadequate lighting. They have be more on the alert because the relatively reduced visibility.A good knowledge of the penitenciary building and and strict respect observance of penetenciary procedure will be very useful. Mr.Stephane luako Lombo

  4. Writing Prof on 07/25/2012:

    Beautifully written! Thank you for opening up this world to us. Please do write again.

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