Advocacy group calls for overhaul at Montana prison, hospital

Photo of a Welcome to Montana road sign in the shape of the state
Improve conditions in prison and hospital

The ACLU of Montana and Disability Rights Montana released February 26 the findings of a year-long investigation into conditions at the Montana State Prison and the Montana State Hospital.

In a scathing letter to state officials, the advocacy group reported that their investigation “revealed numerous violations of federal law and a pattern of conduct that unquestionably magnifies, instead of reduces, the severity of mental illnesses afflicting prisoners.”

“Our organization exists because lawmakers recognized that people with mental impairments are vulnerable to being mistreated in institutional settings and need advocates to help them,” said Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana, in a news release. “In our investigation of the prison and its practices, we have uncovered shocking and inhumane treatment of people who are mentally ill.”

According to the letter, the Montana State Hospital, to avoid treating “Guilty but Mentally Ill” prisoners, routinely transfer people with mental illnesses to the prison.
The prison then allegedly has a practice of locking people with mental illnesses in solitary confinement for 22 to 24 hours a day, or placing them on “behavior modification plans,” where they are deprived of clothing, working toilets, bedding and proper food.

The letter also describes a practice of failing to screen and evaluate the inmates for mental illnesses. Despite holding likely more than 275 people with mental illness, the prison has just 12 mental health beds.

In 2012, the ACLU reached a settlement with the state limiting the use of solitary confinement for juveniles.

“It was readily apparent during the investigation that these problems were not isolated incidents. They were part of a pattern of unconstitutional and abusive treatment of prisoners with mental illness,” said Jeff Simmons, an attorney with Foley & Lardner LLP who assisted with the investigation, in the news release. “These people have a constitutional right to receive appropriate mental health care and to be free from abusive solitary confinement and ‘behavior modification plans.'”

Disability Rights Montana is the federally funded protection and advocacy system in Montana, and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.