Male prisoners at the Missoula County Detention Center are given an hour of outdoor recreation five days a week.

In their outdoor recreation yard, these prisoners exercise in the fresh air and have time in the sun to absorb the Vitamin D crucial to physical and psychological well-being.

But Missoula County doesn't think female and juvenile prisoners need an outdoor recreation yard. They are only allowed exercise within an indoor gym where they rarely have access to fresh air and must take turns trying to get a short moment in the sunlight that shines at times on small parts of the gym floor.

Gender discrimination is very real at the Missoula County Jail. The ACLU of Montana is suing to secure women and juvenile prisoners the same access to outdoor recreation given to male prisoners.

Missoula County has repeatedly refused to remedy the situation, despite numerous requests and grievances from female prisoners who report deteriorating physical and psychological conditions the longer they are in the jail.

Many are there for months.

Courts have repeatedly ruled that depriving prisoners of fresh air and natural light is an unconstitutional violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The American Bar Association also includes outdoor recreation in its standards for the treatment of prisoners.

What's really disheartening is that this is a problem the county could easily fix. There is a fenced outdoor area adjacent to the women's and juvenile housing units which could be used as a recreation yard. Or the county could use a canvas curtain to separate male prisoners from female and juvenile prisoners in the existing outdoor yard as it already does in the gym.

The ACLU of Montana only files lawsuits as a last resort. But when corrections officials refuse to follow the law, they leave us little choice.

In a Missoulian article about our lawsuit, Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen says, "Obviously the top concerns are the welfare and safety of the prisoners."

If that's the case, we hope the county will do what's right, stop discriminating against female and juvenile prisoners and provide them outdoor recreation.