An Update on our Prison Litigation

By Jon Ellingson, Staff Attorney

The ACLU of Montana has made an extraordinary investment of time and resources in working to improve the conditions of inmates in our jails and prisons. These people are often the forgotten members of our society. We need to remind ourselves that inmates are human beings who are like us in most ways. They have an inviolable right to human dignity under our Montana Constitution and they will be returning to our society after serving their sentences. Debasing them will not make them better citizens or people when they interact with us once again

With these values in mind, this affiliate has investigated conditions in Montana jails resulting in the jail report, “Locked in the Past.” We have investigated the pregnancy policies in Montana jails, we have successfully litigated the reasonable right to fresh air for inmates, and we have brought cases resulting in policy changes at prisons that better protect Native American inmates’ rights to practice their faith free from discrimination and communicate with friends and family in their native tongues.

In addition, we have initiated litigation to protect the rights of inmates who are mentally ill and have continued work on a case of long standing to protect the rights of disabled inmates. Let me describe recent developments in each.

Our Langford case seeks to apply the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to the State Prison. The prison has numerous programs to educate inmates and facilitate their successful transition to the outside world. But if an inmate has a disability that prevents his participation, those programs are of no avail. Moreover, if an inmate cannot effectively participate in a disciplinary proceeding against him because of a mental illness or other disability, he will often be unfairly punished. The ADA requires that reasonable accommodations be made for such inmates so that they are not disadvantaged because of their disability. We hope to negotiate a settlement that results in the prison becoming fully compliant with all of the requirements of the ADA.

We have two other cases designed to protect the rights of the mentally ill in prison. Both are brought with the cooperation and assistance of Disability Rights Montana, the leading disability rights organization of the state. One asks that the state provide constitutionally adequate mental health services to those inmates who are seriously mentally ill. In addition, this suit asks for a blanket prohibition on the placement of these inmates into solitary confinement. In this effort we join a growing nationwide movement that has seen success in more and more states.

The second case seeks to impose adequate due process protections on the Department of Public Health and Human Services before it can transfer mentally ill prisoners from the therapeutic setting of the State Hospital to the punitive environment of the State Prison. These cases are in very different procedural postures at this time. One is on appeal and the other is proceeding toward a trial in 2017. We are confident in the merits of both lawsuits and look forward to a conclusion in each that will protect the human dignity of inmates as they pay their debt to society.