Montana Public Radio

Carolynn Bright

Jason Farrar (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Montana’s prisons have stopped allowing in person visits to inmates since March. As cases continue to stack up across the state and inside correctional facilities, difficulties maintaining communication between inmates and their loved ones have also increased. Experts say isolation among inmates can negatively impact inmates' mental health and make it harder for them to adjust once out of prison.

 


The Montana National Guard on Nov. 18 withdrew from Montana State Prison after assisting the facility, strained by an outbreak of COVID-19 among inmates and staff. Eleven soldiers tested positive for the virus prior to and during the roughly three week mission.

Major Dan Bushnell says it’s unknown how nine National Guard members contracted the virus while on assignment at the state prison.

"We do not know that at this time," Bushnell said.

Bushnell says contact between service members and inmates was minimal.

The Montana Department of Corrections confirmed Friday two inmates in state custody died due to COVID-19 last month. The announcement came nearly two weeks after the first inmate’s death.

Inmate Populations for Select County Jails in Montana
Charles Bolte / Montana Public Radio

County jail populations dropped this spring as the state reacted to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Now, with cases of COVID-19 on the rise, inmate populations in several of Montana’s largest county jails are growing and cell blocks are crowded. Some advocates are calling for more action to reduce the number of people locked up during this time. But local sheriffs say they’re balancing virus risks and public safety. It’s all leaving some inmates worried about their health.

A State of Montana spokesperson says she was wrong in telling the Billings Gazette last week that a female inmate who tested positive for the novel coronavirus had been isolated for the entire length of her illness.