Montana News

Mar 1, 2014 1:08 PM by Sanjay Talwani (sanjay@kxlh.com)

Charge: Extensive violations of rights of mentally ill prisoners in Montana

HELENA -- There have been accusations for years of poor treatment of mentally ill inmates in Montana State Prison, along with some big-profile lawsuits.

Now, the state's advocate of people with disabilities wants some answers, following a 16-month investigation that included interviews with more than 50 inmates and a review of "thousands and thousands of pages" of prison documents.

Disability Rights Montana -- by law, the designated protection and advocacy agency for the disabled in the state -- and ACLU Montana sent a 39-page letter on Wednesday to the MT Department of Corrections and the MT Department of Public Health & Human Services.

The letter outlines what DRM calls "pervasive constitutional violations" of the mentally ill at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge and at Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, the state's primary in-patient mental health facility.

DRM says its investigation "has revealed numerous violations of federal law and a pattern of conduct that unquestionably magnifies, instead of reduces, the severity of the mental health illness and other disabilities."

"Even if someone is incarcerated in prison they have a Constitutional right to a minimum standard of care - health care and mental health care. And right now, Montana State Prison ... based on our investigation - falls below that Constitutional standard of care," said Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of DRM, said Friday. "There is a pattern and practice at the prison that basically is making sick people sicker."

DRM says it will take the issues to federal court if progress is not made to resolve them. It asked the state to get in touch by March 14 to discuss possible solutions.

Among the allegations:

* A pattern of deliberately withholding medications from prisoners with mental illness.

* Using solitary confinement to punish prisoners with mental healt for bad behavior, without any legitimate system to determine whether the system was a result of mental illness.
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* Depriving inmates of basics like proper food, clothing, bedding and human contact as part of "behavior modification plans."

* Having no meaningful system of treatment and therapy for the vast majority of prisoners with mental illness.

The letter says the mental health unit of the prison has just 12 beds. Franks-Ongoy said the prison has 170 cells for solitary confinement.

Asked about that number, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Judy Beck said the prison has two "Locked Housing Units," totaling 213 single cells used for several purposes including "Maximum Custody, Special Management Inmates, Administrative Segregation, Pre-hearing Confinement, and Disciplinary Detention."

In all, the prison at Deer Lodge had 1,459 inmates as of Thursday.

In a response Thursday, Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista did not specifically deny the allegations, but said the department takes them seriously. He said the department has cooperated with outside investigators and he outlined steps the department has taken to improve treatment of the mentally ill, including a 2011 accreditation from the National Commission in Correctional Health Care.

Franks-Ongoy said that accreditation was not enough, and that the manual on it only includes one page on mental health.

DRM says the violations are particularly disturbing given the prison's history with this issue -- particularly a toughly worded 2003 Montana Supreme Court opinion.

"If the particular conditions of confinement cause serious mental illness to be greatly exacerbated or if it deprives inmates of their sanity, then prison officials have deprived inmates of the basic necessity for human existence and have crossed the line into torture," the court wrote.

DRM also said Montana State Hospital is "complicit in the systematic mistreatment of prisoners with mental illness."

The letter says the hospital transfers to the prison those inmates found "Guilty But Mentally Ill simply to open bed space or to avoid treating prisoners whop are disliked by the staff." DRM said the hospital's forensic unit is not equipped to handle the safety issues presented by some patients.

A DPHHS spokesman refered an inquiry to the Corrections Department letter. But Hospital Administrator John Glueckert testified before the Legislature in January about the pressures the hospital faced from the growing demands placed upon it.

Because the number of discharges wasn't keeping up with the number of admissions, the hospital was bumping against or even exceeding its licensed capacity "fairly routinely," he told Montana Television Network after a hearing January 10. Three times in the previous month or so, he said then, the hospital had asked law enforcement personnel and mental health providers to do what they could to serve people in their communities instead of sending them to Warm Springs.

Backing its claims, the DRM letter includes some detailed descriptions of the behaviors of seven specific inmates, including examples of extensive and repeated self-mutilation, and the response and treatment from MSP.

Click here to view the DRM letter (PDF).

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