Disability Rights Montana today filed an emergency petition asking the Montana Supreme Court to take immediate action to benefit prisoners with disabilities by reducing the number of people who are now in or who will enter Montana’s jails and prisons. The ACLU of Montana, together with the Beck, Amsden and Stalpes law firm filed the petition on behalf of Disability Rights Montana.
The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spreading exponentially across the country and the state. According to the petition, the Montana Supreme Court has the power to immediately reduce the number of incarcerated people in Montana in these extraordinary circumstances. Doing so would mitigate the mortal harm to incarcerated people with disabilities while also protecting other incarcerated people from undue harm, public health, and public safety.
According to public health experts, the two most important ways to prevent the spread of the highly-fatal COVID-19 are social distancing and frequent handwashing. For people in Montana’s prisons and jails, complying with those methods is virtually impossible. An estimated 32 percent of prisoners and 40 percent of those in jail report having at least one disability. These disabilities make them particularly susceptible to COVID-19. Further, when the outbreak reaches Montana correctional facilities, it is likely that care rationing programs that discriminate against prisoners with disabilities will be implemented, such as has already occurred in Washington State.
Also at higher risk of infection are the medical and correctional staff who come and go between correction facilities and their homes, potentially spilling the outbreak into communities across the state.
“With a virus this contagious and this lethal, the state has an obligation to act immediately,” said Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana. “Without swift action, the ripple effect of an outbreak in correctional facilities will endanger everyone, hitting people with disabilities especially hard. Reducing the number of people in prisons and jails is consistent with the recommendations of public health experts and will save lives.”
The petition argues that subjecting non-dangerous prisoners with disabilities to the inevitable outbreak of COVID-19 amounts to deliberate indifference to prisoners’ health and safety and also violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as the Montana Constitution.
The petition asks the Montana Supreme Court to reduce the number of people currently in custody — by reducing both those detained before trial (currently about 60 percent of Montana’s jail population) and those already sentenced — and by taking fewer people into custody in the first place.
As of March 31, Montana had 198 confirmed COVID-19 cases, two of which are correctional officers at the Yellowstone County Detention Center. According to the petition, many of Montana’s prisons and jails are overcrowded, making it virtually impossible to control the inevitable spread of the virus in those facilities without reducing the number of incarcerated people.
“We’ve long been concerned about Montana’s overcrowded correctional facilities,” said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana. “This public health emergency serves as an important reminder about the dangers of overpopulated prisons and jails. If the state doesn’t act now to reduce incarceration levels, lives will be lost.”
The Montana Supreme Court has already recognized the threat of COVID-19 and issued a number of orders designed to slow the spread of the disease. Furthermore, Chief Justice McGrath has noted that it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads in Montana’s correctional facilities.
States across the country are taking similar steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. At least fifteen state and local court systems have already taken steps to limit incarceration during this crisis.
This petition to the Montana Supreme Court follows a letter that the ACLU of Montana and other organizations sent to Governor Bullock, the Montana Department of Corrections, and other stakeholders across the state, imploring them to reduce the population of incarcerated individuals. While the state and some counties have made some changes, those efforts are simply inadequate to address the inevitable spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails across the state.
“This is a dire emergency,” said Justin Stalpes, attorney at Beck, Amsden and Stalpes. “The response cannot be patchwork - the only thing that will stop, or at least slow, the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in correctional facilities and communities is a swift and uniform state-wide response. Lives are at stake - we cannot afford to wait another minute.”