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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Gov. Orders Coronavirus Precautions For Montana 's Correctional Facilities

Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath.
Josh Burnham
Montana Public Radio

Gov. Steve Bullock Wednesday issued a directive aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 in Montana’s Correctional facilities. But it was dismissed as too little, too late by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and disability rights advocates.

The Montana Supreme Court weighed in late in the afternoon.

Gov. Bullock’s directive is meant to ensure Montana’s corrections staff are taking necessary precautions to guard against the spread of COVID-19. It includes steps such as 14-day quarantines for new transfers, protocols for testing inmates who have symptoms and isolation of symptomatic inmates.

Alex Rate of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana dismisses the move as insufficient.

"What we need to see are extraordinary measures. Unfortunately, the government’s directive simply doesn’t go far enough to protect against the rampant spread of the virus in our correctional facilities."

Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath last month asked city and county courts to consider releasing as many non-violent people from jail as possible.

ACLU of Montana’s Alex Rate says that’s resulted in a patchwork response.

"What we’re seeking is a uniform order from the Montana Supreme Court directing that all facilities undertake that review and immediately reduce their incarcerated population," Rate says.

ACLU of Montana, along with a Bozeman law firm are representing a group that advocates for people with disabilities. Disability Rights Montana asked the state Supreme Court Wednesday to order the release of some non-violent prison and jail inmates to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Bernadette Franks-Ongoy is the executive director of Disability Rights Montana.

"We want all detainees to be safe. We all need to work together to get as much social distancing between us as we possibly can. And people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable in a prison setting."

The Montana Supreme Court indicated it’s taking the petition seriously. In a majority opinion issued late Wednesday afternoon, justices ordered state officials, including Attorney General Tim Fox and the Department of Corrections, to prepare a response to the petition within five days.

Justices Dirk Sandefur and Jim Rice dissented from the majority, saying in part that the petitioners did not prove any state agencies are failing in their responsibilities to protect inmates.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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