By Anna Conley ACLU Staff Attorney and Montana Prison Project Director
Last week I toured many jails, prisons and other facilities in the eastern part of Montana as part of ongoing research into work we need to do as part of the Montana Prison Project. One particularly interesting stop was the Custer County Jail in Miles City, Montana. Shocked and appalled are understatements how I felt going through this jail.
According to the jail's website, the facility can hold 18 inmates "comfortably." After touring this jail, I am 100% sure there is nothing comfortable about the stay there. We started our tour down a narrow hallway in the basement.
Although the rest of the jail was built in 1904, the basement was built in 1975. Apparently, there were not yet any jail standards in place in 1975, because the basement area holding prisoners has no windows, no day room, a dank moldy shower with a broken shower curtain, and a falling ceiling. Two hours a day inmates were let out of their cells into a narrow cement hallway with no windows.
Like the rest of the inmates in the prison, male pre-trial detainees are held in basement cells for up to a year with no natural light or fresh air of any kind - ever. There is no outside recreation area in the jail. It is beyond a doubt that the conditions in the basement, as with the rest of the facility, do not comply with building codes, fire codes or ADA requirements. In fact, when disabled prisoners are housed in the basement, they must be carried up and down the narrow stairs by the detention officer. A fire or other safety emergency in this building would most certainly prove catastrophic and result in the unnecessary loss of lives. As pre-trial detainees, the individuals locked in the basement in these conditions retain the presumption of innocence we all enjoy. While being housed there, their only proven crime was being too poor to post bond.
The first floor was built in the early 1900s and has not been renovated at all. Male inmates who have been sentenced are housed here in four cells with two bunks each. The "dayroom" in which inmates spend their day is dark and filthy, as is their shower. This floor has three windows that have two heavy grates covering them. The windows do not appear to open, meaning these inmates go over a year with no sunlight or fresh air. Jail standards from states and jurisdictions across the nation universally call for inmates to have access to natural light.
Female inmates are housed on the second floor, which was also dark and dirty. They too can go over a year without ever stepping outside, breathing fresh air, or seeing natural light. This floor still has a trap door in the floor where inmates were hanged. I wonder how many souls haunt this floor. There is a dark hallway outside the cells where inmates can sit, and they are let out of this hallway twice per week into a larger dark empty room for a couple hours per week.
It was disheartening and extremely sad to see human beings detained under these conditions. The pale yellowish pallor of their faces and my overwhelming urge to get out of that building as soon as possible made it clear that being housed there even for one day would be unbearable. It is places like this that are the reason for the Eighth Amendment's protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Budgetary constraints are not an excuse for conditions this extreme.
On a more positive note, although the jail is unacceptable for holding inmates, even temporarily, by any standard, it could operate as a museum or set for a haunted jail in an old timey western. Of course, it'd need a good cleaning to get rid of the mold, and they'd need to fix the falling ceiling before opening day.