HELENA — Disability Rights Montana says they’ve reached a settlement agreement with the Montana Department of Corrections which will restrict the use of solitary confinement and reform care for inmates with severe mental illness.
The agreement resolves a 2015 lawsuit over Montana State Prison’s treatment of inmates with severe mental illness. Disability Rights Montana says during the course of litigation on the matter, 12 prisoners with severe mental health concerns died by suicide.
According to a statement, the ACLU of Montana and the firm Foley & Lardner LLP, which represented Disability Rights Montana, finalized the agreement with the prison and DOC last Friday.
“This settlement represents huge gains for the humane treatment of inmates with severe mental illness,” said Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana, in the statement. “Inmates with severe mental illness will now be provided appropriate care, treatment, and housing not to mention access to mental health experts, and most importantly restricts the use of solitary confinement."
The lawsuit claimed the prison’s policies toward people with mental illness amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Plaintiffs argued extended periods of solitary confinement and “behavior modification plans” had worsened some individuals’ illnesses.
According to the settlement, inmates with severe mental illness must be housed in cells that contain working toilets and sinks and platform beds. It requires that so-called “safe cells” be used only for temporary placement, and only as long a mental health professional determines it’s necessary. Inmates will be guaranteed at least four hours a day outside their cells. An independent monitor will be appointed to ensure compliance.
The Montana Department of Corrections (DOC) told MTN they have been making significant changes in recent years and that the settlement affirms new DOC procedures.
"The Montana Department of Corrections initiated significant reforms in restrictive housing practices at Montana State Prison that improve behavioral health services provided to inmates while also maintaining safety and security at the facility. In fact, in 2019, the DOC brought forth legislation that codified these correctional best practices in Montana. This settlement, and the stipulated dismissal with prejudice of the DRM lawsuit, which was brought in 2015, affirms our effort and commitment to providing a safe and rehabilitative environment at the Montana State Prison and our other facilities. In addition, the terms of the settlement - which require only minor modifications of the facility and its procedures - affirm the efficacy of the best practices DOC has already implemented on its own. Finally, the settlement of this time-consuming litigation at taxpayer expense will allow the department to continue focusing its resources on its public safety mission and serving the inmates under its care."
ACLU of Montana executive director Caitlin Borgmann said she believes the settlement is a huge step forward for helping mentally ill inmates.
“We still have a long way to go to reinstate the dignity of incarcerated individuals in Montana, but it can no longer be said that solitary confinement exists for mentally ill individuals at the Montana State Prison,” said Borgmann in a statement.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated with a statement from the Montana Department of Corrections.