A case challenging the unconstitutional treatment of individuals with mental illness at the Montana State Prison can now move forward, after the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a lower court decision that had dismissed the case. In its opinion issued today, the Ninth Circuit held that the case describes “horrific treatment of prisoners.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2015 by Disability Rights Montana, the ACLU of Montana, and Foley & Lardner LLP, will now go back to the District Court for consideration of the Plaintiffs’ claims. Today’s ruling reversed the district court’s dismissal, remanded for further proceedings, and reassigned the case to a different district court judge.

According to the complaint, the Montana Department of Corrections is engaging in ongoing violations of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by knowingly administering policies and practices that exacerbate the mental health of people incarcerated in the Montana State Prison.  The failure of the DOC to provide constitutionally guaranteed mental health treatment has led to deteriorating mental health, extreme self-harm, and suicide.

Individuals with mental illnesses make up about 20 percent of the Prison’s population.  They are regularly locked in solitary confinement for months or years and then punished for behavior that is a manifestation of their illness.  The Montana State Prison fails to properly diagnose people, has no standards to determine whether punishments will be harmful to a person’s mental health, and fails to provide proper medication and treatment to those with serious mental illness. When people do obtain an evaluation, a visit with a psychiatrist, or medication, those services and treatments are often severely delayed.

“Montana shouldn’t be warehousing people with mental illnesses in its prisons to begin with,” said Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, Executive Director of Disability Rights Montana. “People with mental illnesses who are in Montana’s prisons have a constitutional right to adequate healthcare – something Montana State Prison routinely fails to provide.”

According to the complaint, people in solitary confinement at the Montana State Prison receive no therapy for their mental illness other than a non-confidential weekly round by a mental health technician.  Written requests for additional mental health care are regularly denied. 

Some people with mental health illnesses are put on “Behavior Management Plans” (BMP) where they are kept in 24-hour isolation, stripped from their clothes, and are given just a mattress, blanket, and smock. They are fed a meal of nutraloaf (a tasteless loaf) on a paper towel and are not allowed any running water in their cell.  In some cases, the person does not have access to a toilet, and instead must go to the bathroom through a grate on the floor.  Many of the individuals are placed on BMPs when their mental illness is exacerbated by the lack of appropriate care.  In fact, some of the mental health staff at the prison have encouraged the use of BMPs instead of ensuring that the people get constitutionally adequate care.  The Montana State Prison’s most common response to a person expressing thoughts of suicide is to place them on a BMP. 

“People with serious mental illnesses are being forced into horrific and unconstitutional conditions instead of getting the necessary treatment that the state has a duty to provide,” said Caitlin Borgmann, Executive Director of the ACLU of Montana.  “This barbaric practice must end.”

The complaint identifies nine people who have been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and asserts that all incarcerated people with serious mental illness at the Montana State Prison are at significant risk for suffering cruel and unusual punishment in the future. Disability Rights Montana regularly monitors the conditions inside the Montana State Prison.

The defendants in the original lawsuit were Mike Batista, then Director of the Montana Department of Corrections and Leroy Kirkegard, then Warden of the Montana State Prison.  After the lower court dismissed the case in September 2015, the plaintiffs appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and asked that the District Court’s decision be reversed.

A bill to restrict the use of solitary confinement in Montana’s correctional facilities was recently signed into law by Governor Bullock.  The new law will limit the use of solitary confinement for those with mental health disorders and increase the amount of treatment and care those individuals receive. While this is a step forward, the use of solitary confinement for all people – and especially those with mental health disorders - must be abolished completely.

“We will continue to hold the Department of Corrections accountable for the unconstitutional treatment of those in its custody,” said Borgmann.