The ACLU of Montana sent right-to-know requests to the Department of Corrections, the Governor’s Office, and the Board of Pardons and Parole, along with Gallatin County Pre-Release Center, Lewis and Clark County Jail, and Butte County Jail. These public records requests seek information regarding testing and preventive measures undertaken by state and local agencies to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
The organization seeks to learn what concrete measures state and local agencies and officials have taken to protect people in prison and jail from COVID-19, including:
- The current population of incarcerated individuals, and the capacity of the facilities.
- The number of cells currently occupied by more than one prisoner, sorted by facility.
- The number of COVID-19 tests administered to incarcerated people or staff in facilities, including the date administered and the result.
- Any documents reflecting the Board of Pardons and Parole’s implementation of early release for certain prisoners per the April 1, 2020 directive from Governor Bullock.
- Communications between or among the Governor’s office, the Department of Corrections (DOC), and any other state agency or official, estimating or predicting COVID-19 infection rates and mortality among people living and working in DOC facilities.
These requests come after the ACLU of Montana received reports of workers or incarcerated people who have tested positive, learning that some facilities are overcrowded, hearing concerns from family members of incarcerated individuals about lack of availability of testing, implementation of social distancing and access to adequate protective equipment, and reports of recent lock-downs at multiple facilities.
“We remain concerned that our state government and certain counties are not taking adequate measures to protect incarcerated people from the coronavirus,” said Caitlin Borgman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Montana. “So far, there’s been a worrying lack of transparency as to what steps are even being taken, let alone if those steps align with the advice of public health experts.”
The organization --with allies -- sent a letter to Governor Bullock on March 18th, urging him to lead a coordinated, statewide response. According to the ACLU of Montana, the directive the Governor issued on April 1 was too vague and undefined to sufficiently reduce the number of people potentially exposed to COVID-19 in all parts of the criminal legal system.
On April 1, Disability Rights Montana, represented by the ACLU of Montana, filed an emergency petition with the Montana Supreme Court asking the court to take immediate action to reduce the number of people who are now in or who will enter Montana’s jails and prisons. The petition was later denied. Only eleven entities responded to the petition, leaving Montanans in the dark as to what is being done to protect people incarcerated -- or working -- in detention facilities in many counties and at the state level. In response to the Petition, the Parole Board stated that it had only released two prisoners.
“While some counties are clearly making an effort to protect those in their custody, we’re hearing lip service from the state and other counties that steps are being taken to lower the risk of incarcerated people contracting this virus, without offering sufficient details,” said Borgmann. “Montanans have a right to know what is going on, and that’s why we filed these requests.”
Jails and prisons across the country are becoming hotspots for COVID-19 infections, with more than 10,000 people in custody having been infected.
Even as the spread of COVID-19 has slowed in some areas of the country, the national ACLU today released a new epidemiological model showing that COVID-19 could claim the lives of approximately 100,000 more people nationwide than current projections stipulate if jail populations are not dramatically and immediately reduced. The findings indicate that—even if communities across the United States continue practicing social distancing and following public health guidance—they will still experience much higher death rates than predicted if no substantial action is taken to reduce jail populations.