Missoula County is moving forward with plans to build outdoor exercise yards for female, juvenile and solitary confinement prisoners at the county detention center.

The move is part of a settlement for a lawsuit brought against the county by the ACLU of Montana and attorney Greg Munro. Right now, only male prisoners in general population pods have access to the outdoors. Women and children at the detention center, as well as prisoners in solitary confinement, have been denied this right in violation of both their right to equal protection under the law and to their right be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Two recent articles in the Missoulian, pointed out that Missoula County is asking taxpayers to spend more than $500,000 in additional taxes to pay for the necessary improvements and to hire six guards.

Several points are important to note:

Under the terms of the settlement with the ACLU, only one additional guard is required. Funding for the five officers above and beyond the one required in the settlement is solely a decision of Missoula County officials. While these additional detention staff may be desirable for a number of reasons, they are not required in our settlement. Of the $571,000 the county is seeking, $250,000 is for the physical costs of building outdoor yards. The remaining $321,000 is for additional guards.

Treating female, juvenile and solitary confinement prisoners differently by offering men in the general population pods outdoor exercise and denying it to the rest is cruel and unusual and is a violation of those prisoners’ right to be treated equally under the law.

Outdoor recreation for prisoners is not a perk. The ACLU of Montana is not looking to turn the detention center into a Hilton.  It is a constitutional requirement under both the U.S. Constitution and the Montana Constitution to provide for the physical and mental health of prisoners. Prisoners denied fresh air and sunlight have been shown to experience increased anxiety and depression, develop skin conditions, gain weight, and to lose their hair. Denial of outdoor exercise exacerbates the condition of those already mentally ill and can cause mental illness in those who did not exhibit it before.

Many prisoners in the Missoula County Detention Center have not been convicted of any crime. They are there awaiting trial or sentencing, in most cases simply because they cannot post bond.

The county could have paid for the improvements out of its public safety fund, but chose to go to the taxpayers instead. The County could have hired the detention officers it needs without attempting to blame the ACLU of Montana and this lawsuit.

Building outdoor exercise yards for women and children at the Missoula County Detention Center is the right and lawful thing to do. When we as a society lock people up, it is our constitutional obligation to treat them humanely and maintain their physical and mental health. This settlement is part of that obligation.