Who We Are
In 2007, National ACLU provided the means for the ACLU of Montana to expand its services and advocacy by designating our state affiliate to receive “Strategic Affilliate Investments.” As a result, in October 2008, the ACLU of Montana launched the “Montana Prison Project” (MPP), which included hiring a full-time staff attorney devoted to the advocacy of constitutional jail and prison conditions. Montana Prison Project’s advocacy includes:
- the provision of humane and sanitary living conditions;
- the provision of constitutionally required medical care, including mental health care;
- the protection of First Amendment rights and religious liberties while incarcerated; and
- racial justice.
What We Do
Montana Prison Project monitors conditions of confinement in Montana’s jails, which are run by the individual counties, and the prisons, which are run by the Montana Department of Corrections. Every month, we receive 30–50 complaints from inmates throughout the State and in all levels of confinement. Since the creation of MPP and the hiring of a staff attorney, we are now able to respond to more complaints than previously, travel to facilities across the state for interviews and participate in jail and prison tours.
Montana Prison Project advocates for constitutional jail and prison conditions in a variety of ways. A comprehensive database allows MPP to compile and organize the number of complaints that we receive, and assists us in tracking trends and problems on either a substantive or facility level. With this information, MPP can compare conditions of the various facilities and advocate for uniform jail and prison standards throughout the state. MPP also investigates complaints by interviewing inmates, family members and witnesses, reviewing medical records and discussing concerns with jail and prison staff. Demand letters are sent when necessary to advocate a change in position or review of a situation. Also, when necessary, MPP cooperates with attorneys throughout the State to bring litigation to assure that constitutional standards are being met in Montana’s jails and prisons.
Building a Network of Legal Professionals
Unfortunately, even with MPP’s one staff attorney, the number of complaints we receive and the need for assistance is daunting. In 2009, MPP will begin outreach to local attorneys and legal professionals who are willing to form an advocacy network for humane and constitutional jail and prison conditions. One main goal of this network is to conduct initial interviews with pre-trial detainees at local jails who have filed complaints with the ACLU of Montana. This will help ensure that emergency conditions can be promptly remedied. If you are a legal professional who wants to volunteer for MPP’s prison and jail advocacy network, please contact Betsy Griffing, Legal Director.
The Montana Prison Project’s Advocacy Work
Representation for Indigent Defendents
The ACLU has worked for years on making sure that indigent defendants receive adequate counsel. Our work started in 2002 when we sued the State of Montana seeking reform of a system in which public defense was determined by each individual county and many poor defendants weren't being adequately represented in some counties and which had no state oversight. The state settled with the ACLU, and the Montana Legislature created a statewide public defense system in 2005. Five years after that system was created, public defense was greatly improved, but the system continued to fall short of acheiving its full potential. The ACLU of Montana issued a report in 2011 detailing the ongoing problems with the system. We also have serious concerns about court fees and costs being imposed upon indigent defendants who are unable to pay.
On June 26, 2012, the ACLU of Montana filed an amicus brief in State v. Yarlott, a case currently pending before the Montana Supreme Court. The case involves a criminal defendant whose sentenced included the assessment of a prosecutor fee, a public defender fee, costs, and hours, and jury trial costs. The defendant was indigent, as established by the Office of the Public Defender, and stated to the court that he did not have the ability to pay. However, without hearing any evidence and without any evidence to rebut the defendant's inability to pay, court assessed these costs on the defendant. The court found the defendant had the ability to pay despite the fact that the actual monetary amount of the public defender's costs and jury trial costs were not yet known. These assessments are particularly problematic in that a defendant's parole can be revoked for failure to pay these costs.
The ACLU of Montana argues in its amicus brief that the Montana Code provisions enabling courts to assess costs of indigent criminal defendants are unconstitutionally void of any guidelines that courts must follow to conduct a meaningful inquiry into a defendant's ability to pay. We further argue that indigent criminal defendants' due process rights are violated by having these costs assessed without a notice and hearing and without knowing what the cost is prior to sentencing. The practical result of these constitutionally infirm statutes is that already indigent defendants are having thousands of dollars assessed on them that they have no ability to pay without a determination by the court that they can actually pay them. States and local governments cannot turn to their poorest citizens to pay costs that are the government's responsibility. Our Constitution guarantees a right to counsel, due process of law and the right to a jury trial. Where indigent defendants are forced to foot the bill for these protections without a fact-based determination that they have any ability to do so, these rights are impermissibly chilled.
Proper Care for the Incarcerated Mentally Ill. Unfortunately, our mental health care system is overburdened and all too frequently, those suffering from mental illness are sent to the local jails. In order to provide the proper care, local jails must provide prompt and qualified mental health services, including examinations, evaluations, and treatment. Too often, however, the mentally ill are not provided medication of any kind while incarcerated, and are subject to extreme measures such as being tasered, pepper sprayed, or shot with a pepper gun. That's what has happened to a teenager with mental illness in solitary confinement at the Montana State Prison. Another extreme example of this occurred at the Missoula County Detention Center in July of 2006. MPP is investigating the suicide of a mentally ill individual at the Gallatin County jail. Click here for a copy of the report issued by the Montana Disabilitiy Rights Program which detailed the incident.
Proper Medical Care for Incarcerated Individuals. A jail or prison is required by the United States Constitution and the Montana Constitution to provide adequate medical care to inmates and pre-trial detainees. Three of the largest jails in the State, in Bozeman, Missoula and Great Falls, contract the provision of their medical care to Spectrum Medical Services, Inc. Under these contracts, nurse practitioners oversee the provision of all medical care in these facilities. We filed a case in November 2009 to help a pregnant woman who was denied prescribed medication by officials at the Lake County Jail. Additionally, MPP investigates suicides that occurs in detention facilities throughout the State.
Safe and Secure Conditions. A jail or prison is required to protect an individual from harm while incarcerated.
Adequate Living Conditions. Proper heat, water, toilet facilities, sleeping conditions and exercise are constitutionally required. MPP advocated for better heat in cells at Cascade County Detention Facility, and hot water at the Flathead County Detention Center. MPP conducted a tour of the Lincoln County jail based on a complaint by a detainee in a wheelchair. MPP successfully sought minimum access under the American Disabilities Act to showers and toilet for individuals using wheelchairs. We are currently working to rectify unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the Custer County Jail.
- Read letter regarding unsanitary conditions at Montana State Prison
- Read letter sent to Flathead County regarding hot water
- Read letter to Lincoln County regarding access
- Read August 14, 2012 and August 23, 2012 letters regarding Custer County Jail.
First Amendment - Religious Freedom and Racial Justice. Inmates of all religions must be allowed to practice the religion of their choice while incarcerated. Inmates from a privately-run prison filed complaints with the MPP because individual’s participating in a Native American sweat lodge ceremony were being subjected to mass strip searches before and after the ceremony. The MPP met with the Governor’s office regarding this issue and continues to advocate for recognition and non-discrimination of the sweat lodge ceremony.
Two women at Passages pre-release center in Billings filed complaints in October 2008 regarding the facility’s refusal to allow the women to speak their native Crow language during their religious ceremony.
First Amendment- Rights of Association. Currently, the Montana Department of Corrections does not allow inmates to participate in pen pal organizations. Along with the National Prison Project, we are investigating the constitutionality of such a policy ban. Courts have long held that a prisoner does not shed basic First Amendment rights at the prison gates. This includes, among other rights, the right to receive and send mail.