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ACLU alleging widespread mistreatment of mentally ill at state prison

Montana Department of Corrections

  The American Civil Liberties Union of Montanahas written a letter to the statealleging widespread mistreatment of mental illness in both the Montana State Prison and state hospital.

The letter, filed Wednesday by the ACLU on behalf of the organization Disability Rights Montana, threatens a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Corrections and Department of Public Health and Human Services if changes are not made to what the document calls “pervasive constitutional violations.”

"Even though somebody has committed crimes and they are incarcerated, they are entitled under the constitution to receive mental and medical care that meets a certain threshold," said Disability Rights Montana Executive Director Bernadette Franks-Ongoy.

Franks-Ongoy argues DPHHS and Corrections are not meeting that threshold. She said her organization conducted a 16-month investigation into the two agencies, interviewing at least 50 prisoners from the Montana State Prison and looking through thousands of documents.

“What we are finding is pretty shocking,” Franks-Ongoy said.

Some of the allegations from The 22-page ACLU letter include:

  • A pattern of deliberately withholding medication from prisoners with mental illness.
  • Deliberately refusing to diagnose prisoners as suffering from mental illness despite clear evidence supporting such a diagnosis.
  • Keeping prisoners with mental illness locked in solitary confinement 22 to 24 hours a day for months, and in some cases years, which substantially exacerbates their illness.
  • Having a mental health treatment unit containing only 12 beds, despite having more than 275 prisoners on the psychiatrist’s caseload.

Montana Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista responded to the ACLU and Disability Rights Montana Concerns with a two-page letter of his own. In it, Batista says Corrections has been engaging in “a concerted and ongoing effort that has, for the past year, been focusing on how best to provide mental health services to offenders and others.”

“We take these allegations very seriously,” said Montana State Prison Warden Leroy Kirkegard about the ACLU letter, but said he disagrees with how some of the problems are portrayed.

He said there are questions about whether some of the people mentioned in the ACLU letter actually have mental illnesses.  Also, he said the letter makes it seem as if prisoners are placed in solitary confinement because of a mental illness, and that’s just not the case.

“They’re a danger to themselves, they’re a danger to other inmates,” he said. “It reaches a point where we get them their medication, the mental health staff see them on a regular basis, and nothing seems to help.”

He agreed the prison does not provide adequate space for some patients with mental health issues, and the department wants to work with the ACLU and Disability Rights Montana to address the issues and avoid litigation.

“No agency ever wants to go to court,” he said.

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