man with his back to viewer, head down, holding onto bars in cell window

The Associated Press reported yesterday about a lawsuit the ACLU of Montana and Disability Rights Montana filed against the Montana Department of Corrections and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services over the treatment of prisoners with mental illness at the Montana State Prison and patients declared "Guilty But Mentally Ill" at the Montana State Hospital.

The good news is that we are in active negotiations with the Department of Corrections and are optimistic that we can settle the serious constitutional issues at stake. We're very encouraged that they are willing to work with us on solutions to make sure that prisoners with mental illness are not subjected to conditions that exacerbate their illness and that they are given the treatment they need to manage their condition and to succeed in prison and the community upon release.

Constitutional violations and poor mental health practices at Montana State Prison addressed in our letter to the Department of Corrections and the Department of Public Health and Human Services include:

  • A troubling pattern of the prison psychiatrist meeting for just minutes with prisoners with mental illness before finding that they are “faking it,” in spite of significant histories of mental illness;
  • Refusing to provide prisoners with necessary psychiatric medications;
  • Routine imposition of solitary confinement and/or “behavior modification plans” depriving prisoners of clothing, bedding, human contact, a working toilet and proper food as punishment for behaviors caused by mental illness;
  • “Wellness checks” in solitary confinement that consist of a weekly knock at the cell door where any conversation can be overheard by guards and other prisoners;
  • Inadequate mental health staff and training; and
  • Providing just 12 mental health beds in a prison with more than 275 prisoners with mental illness.

In addition, people sentenced “Guilty But Mentally Ill,” and sent to the Montana State Hospital for treatment are routinely transferred to Montana State Prison because Montana State Hospital staff does not want to treat problem patients or they need beds for other patients. These very ill patients have no real opportunity to challenge these transfers from a hospital setting to the prison where mental health care is virtually nonexistent and they are punished for their mental illness.

So far we haven't heard from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, but we are hopeful that, like the DOC, they will come to the table to find solutions.