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Group sues state over treatment of incarcerated mentally ill

Montana Department of Corrections

A civil rights organization filed a lawsuit Monday against the state over the treatment of mentally ill inmates at the Montana State Prison and at the Montana State Hospital.

Disability Rights Montana sued seven top officials with both the state Departments of Corrections and Health and Human Services, saying mentally ill inmates are “subjected to a cruel system that exacerbates, rather than treats and ameliorates their mental illness.”

The 54-page federal suitalleges those considered “Guilty But Mentally Ill” are warehoused, subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, and do not receive adequate care for their illness.

These concerns were relayed to the state in a lengthy letter earlier this year, which Disability Rights Montana wrote after more than a year investigating the state hospital and prison. Executive Director Bernadette Franks-Ongoy said the suit seeks to change conditions for the incarcerated mentally ill, and said she has been very encouraged by the response from the Department of Corrections.

"They're definitely willing to roll up their sleeves,” she said “and I feel very hopeful that they understand the issues and they're going to try to see how to resolve those.”

The ACLU of Montana is one of the entities representing Disability Rights Montana in the suit. Both the ACLU and Franks-Ongoy said they believe it’s possible these issues can be resolved without going to court. ACLU Staff Attorney Anna Conley said other states have left a blueprint for many of these solutions.

"There are many concrete steps that other states have taken to prohibit solitary confinement for prisoners with mental illness, that other states have taken to ensure there is adequate mental health treatment for prisoners with mental illness," she said.

Franks-Ongoy said they have not heard any response to the suit from the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The Department of Corrections and the Department of Public Health and Human Services both declined to be interviewed for this story, saying they will have 60 days to respond to the suit after officially receiving it. They also said they will not be providing further comment on pending litigation. 

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