Felony convictions. Lying to supervisors. Accusations of inappropriate relationships with inmates. Viewing pornography on a cell phone while on duty.
These are some of the allegations included in complaints against Montana State Prison correctional officers that led to their decertification by the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council — or POST, as it's commonly known — and to termination of their employment as public safety officers in 2018.
And according to POST paralegal Katrina Bolger, these recent decertifications and terminations are part of a pattern of issues she’s seen with public safety officers across the state — including lying, sexual misconduct, and substance abuse — that have resulted in certification sanctions.
Bolger said she’s noticed issues related to sexual misconduct with inmates and bringing contraband, like cell phones, into prisons and jails more often with detention and correctional officers and staff than with other public safety officers.
“The (law-enforcement) academy for basic correctional and detention officers includes training on these subjects,” Bolger said. “We talk about these issues and talk about how they are crimes. It’s not just unethical, it’s criminal behavior.”
POST was formed in 2007 as an independent, quasi-judicial watchdog for the state’s public safety officers. The council, which is part of the Montana Department of Justice, is responsible for setting employment and training standards for all public safety officers.
To work as a public safety officer in Montana, a person must receive certification or recertification through the POST council. If there is a valid complaint or allegation made against an officer that the POST considers legitimate, the council has the authority to deny, sanction, revoke, or suspend that officer’s certification, POST’s administrative rules state.
According to POST, nine Montana State Prison correctional officers were decertified in 2018. These certification revocations were a result of POST finding allegations made against the prison officers to be true, based on the evidence provided, Bolger said, and means they cannot legally work in the state as a public safety officer.
In addition, a review of the Silver Bow, Deer Lodge, Jefferson, Madison, Beaverhead, and Granite county jails found that two Anaconda-Deer Lodge detention officers and one Beaverhead detention officer have been decertified since 2013.
At the state prison, sixteen correctional officers have been decertified in that six-year time frame.
One of those officers was Marcus Rhineheart. In July 2018, Rhineheart was terminated from the state prison and decertified by the POST council four months later after watching pornography on his cell phone while on duty.
Rhineheart admitted to the allegations to prison officials.
And in a Thursday interview with The Montana Standard, he attempted to explain what occurred during that incident. According to Rhineheart, the night he was caught, he had been working the second of a double shift and was on perimeter patrol duty, meaning he was driving a truck around the outside of the prison to ensure no one could get in or out.
“On the particular night in question, I had my cell phone with me, which I was not supposed to have,” Rhineheart said. “And I’m not going to lie, I was watching pornography on it.”
Rhineheart said that night’s shift captain caught him, pulled him into his office, then sent him back to work. He said he then received a call from the prison’s assistant warden at the time, informing him he would be suspended for three days pending investigation into his misconduct.
After Rhineheart served his suspension, he said he received a letter about scheduling a union hearing. At the hearing, Rhineheart said he admitted to what he was being accused of. He said he knew what he did was an embarrassment to the prison and that he apologized up front.
The week after his hearing, Rhineheart said he was terminated. The day of his termination, he said he filed a grievance with the acting warden which stated Rhineheart was willing to go through another probationary period to get his job back, he said.
“Honestly, at the time, I don’t feel like it was exactly fair the way the situation was handled,” Rhineheart said. He also alleged that other prison workers displayed similar conduct but were not punished.
According to Rhineheart, the warden denied his grievance, stating in the denial that it wasn’t the first time this had happened and that Rhineheart would do it again, which Rhineheart said was completely false.
“That was the first and only time I had my cell phone on duty, ever,” Rhineheart said.
Rhineheart also mentioned he was dealing with some mental health issues at the time this misconduct occurred and that he wasn’t given the opportunity to get professional help.
Since he was terminated from his position at the Montana State Prison, Rhineheart said he has moved home to Arkansas due to the embarrassment and way the situation was handled.
Bolger acknowledges that it's important to note that the only evidence POST has when it makes initial punitive decisions is the misconduct, which is only one side of the story.
But, she adds, when public safety officers receive notice of decertification and other punitive decisions, they have the right to request a hearing before the POST council to contest that decision.
Bolger said this is a very lengthy process and that most detention officers do not make this request by the determined due date, meaning POST takes the specified action right away.
Rhineheart chose not to go through this process.
While Bolger commented on detention officer misconduct trends in general, Amy Barton, the Montana State Prison’s public information officer, was able to provide some insight into why the state prison's officer decertification rates appear to be higher than those of surrounding county jails.
According to Barton, there are 300 security or correctional officers at the state prison and about the same number of support staff. She said this larger number of officers may explain why the number of state prison officers decertified by the Montana POST council due to alleged misconduct is higher than detention officers at the surrounding county jails.
Barton also said she agrees with Bolger’s observation that sexual misconduct complaints and issues with illegal items being brought into the jails are more common among detention or correctional officers. To address these issues, Barton said the Montana Department of Corrections has its own investigative bureau and has Prison Rape Elimination Act staff that deal directly with sexual misconduct complaints.
“We have a zero tolerance policy,” Barton said.
While she said she could not speak about specific cases, Barton said if prison officials believe misconduct allegations might result in filing criminal charges, they are turned over to the Powell County Attorney’s office.
Deputy Powell County Attorney Patrick Moody generally handles these cases and decides if and when to press charges, as the Department of Corrections pays Powell County to fund his position. Moody said he oversees all crimes that occur at the state prison.
Moody did not say whether he’s noticed any trends in case types over the three years he’s worked as deputy attorney, but he did mention that he is taking a more aggressive approach to state prison crime.
This increased focus and the recent increase in investigative corrections staff may explain why it seems more state prison officers have been decertified compared to surrounding county jails, Moody said.
Moody also said investigations into misconduct at the state prison take a long time, as they are often complex and have many moving parts.
“Sometimes it takes a year before an investigation gets to my office,” Moody said.
However, Moody noted that when he started as Deputy Powell County Attorney, there was a backlog of state prison cases the office hadn’t gotten to. But as of Thursday, he said he’s up to date and that he has been up to date since within a year of starting in his position.
Regardless of where misconduct is happening, Bolger said moving forward she will continue to address specific and current misconduct issues she and the POST council see across the public safety officer spectrum, including issues with sexual misconduct among detention and correctional officers.
“It’s just one of those things that we do our best to address,” Bolger said.