Montana Public Radio

Montana Department of Corrections

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.

Advocates for incarcerated Montanans gathered at the Capitol Monday to speak against how the correctional system fills out census forms on behalf of inmates.

Last month, activists found the Montana Department of Corrections had not included tribal affiliation when filling out census forms for incarcerated Native Americans. They say an inaccurate census count will result in insufficient funding for tribal services, such as healthcare and schools, during the next decade.

COVID goes to college

Sep 3, 2020

For months, Gallatin County was the epicenter for COVID-19 cases in Montana. The county was the first in Montana to hit 100 cases, the first to document community spread, and during the pandemic’s first month Gallatin County was home to more than half the reported cases in the state.

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.

Six more residents of a corrections facility in Billings have tested positive for COVID-19 amid a steep rise in cases in the county where it’s located.

Four new cases were discovered after all Alpha House pre-release center residents were tested July 9. Another two cases came from individuals who displayed symptoms before testing, making eight infected facility residents in total.

“So we have a better feel for where we really are. We hope," says David Armstrong, CEO of Alternatives, Inc., which runs Alpha House for the Montana Department of Corrections.


Two residents of a corrections facility in Billings have tested positive for COVID-19.

The cases were discovered July 4  and 6 at Alpha House pre-release center, where offenders typically spend six months before reentering society.

David Armstrong is CEO of Alternatives Inc., which operates Alpha House for the Montana Department of Corrections.

“Both of these came out of residents who had symptomatology and were sent for testing. And the test results came back positive," Armstrong said. 

Armstrong says both individuals with COVID-19 are isolated.


This story is part of our series that looks at lasting ways Montana is adapting during the pandemic. It’s funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network.

Criminal justice system reformers for years have sought to reduce county jail and state prison populations in Montana. The COVID-19 pandemic has sped up the process, mostly at county detention facilities across the state.

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.