New DOC settlement bolsters rights for incarcerated people with severe mental illness

By: - March 16, 2022 8:20 pm

Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. (Provided by the Montana Department of Corrections.)

Incarcerated people at the Montana State Prison with a severe mental illness received new guarantees like access to natural light and potable water in their cells following a settlement last week between the Montana Department of Corrections and Disability Rights Montana.

The settlement is seven years in the making following a federal lawsuit by Disability Rights Montana in 2015 alleging the Deer Lodge state prison was violating constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. As part of the settlement, the DOC is absolved of any liability.

In an email, DOC communications director Carolynn Bright said the department initiated improvements on its own and the settlement only affirms the work it already has been doing.

“The Montana Department of Corrections initiated significant reforms in restrictive housing practices at Montana State Prison that improve behavioral health services provided to inmates while also maintaining safety and security at the facility,” Bright said. “In fact, in 2019, the DOC brought forth legislation that codified these correctional best practices in Montana.

“This settlement … affirms our effort and commitment to providing a safe and rehabilitative environment at MSP and our other facilities. In addition, the terms of the settlement – which require only minor modifications of the facility and its procedures – affirm the efficacy of the best practices DOC has already implemented on its own.”

Under the settlement, which is effective as of March 10, incarcerated people with a severe mental illness will be guaranteed to leave their cells for four hours per day, qualified mental health professionals will provide all mental health treatment at MSP, and severely mentally ill inmates will be guaranteed basic necessities like cells with natural lighting, a toilet, and personal care items like soap and a toothbrush.

The Department of Corrections will also request funding for eight additional full-time mental health staffers ahead of the 2023 legislative session and all staffers who primarily work with the disabled prison population to undergo 30 hours of initial mental health training. The additional requested staff includes three licensed therapists, three mental health technicians and two activities coordinators.

“Prior to the settlement, incarcerated people with mental illness were routinely subjected to extended periods of solitary confinement and’ behavior modification plans’ that deprived them of clothing, working toilets, bedding, and proper food,” a press release from Disability Rights Montana announcing the settlement read.

The settlement also requires DOC to appoint an independent monitor to ensure MSP and DOC comply with the settlement terms. The independent monitor will oversee the prison for one year. DOC did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

While Disability Rights Montana acknowledged conditions have improved over the last few years, it said in the release that 12 people with severe mental illness have died by suicide at MSP since the lawsuit was filed.

“This settlement represents huge gains for the humane treatment of inmates with severe mental illness,” Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana, said in the press release. “Inmates with severe mental illness will now be provided appropriate care, treatment, and housing not to mention access to mental health experts, and most importantly restrict the use of solitary confinement.”

Disability Rights Montana is a federally mandated protection and advocacy organization for Montana disabled populations. Part of its authority is to monitor and investigate facilities where people with disabilities are served or reside. The group was represented by the ACLU of Montana.

“While I am under no illusions that these reforms will be implemented overnight as a result of the settlement, I believe this represents a huge step forward,” Caitlin Borgmann, ACLU of Montana executive director said in the release. “We still have a long way to go to reinstate the dignity of incarcerated individuals in Montana, but it can no longer be said that solitary confinement exists for mentally ill individuals at the Montana State Prison.”

The settlement requires that within six months, all cells used to house incarcerated people with a severe mental illness have windows that allow for natural light, a stainless steel toilet, and sink, each with a potable water source, a bed and a pillow. And by March of 2023, the three “safe cells” in the prison, which are used to house inmates experiencing a mental health crisis, and currently contain squat toilets, must be brought into compliance with the same conditions, according to the settlement.

While the safe cells can still be used in the meantime, the settlement says they must be used temporarily and for no longer than a Qualified Mental Health Professional determines is necessary. And DOC is required by the settlement to prioritize placing disabled incarcerated people experiencing a mental health crisis in MSP’s infirmary or in another placement other than a safe cell until they are brought into compliance with the above conditions.

Under the settlement, with limited exceptions, incarcerated people with severe mental illnesses will be guaranteed at least four hours per day of out-of-cell time and cannot be kept in their cell for more than 20 hours per day unless a Qualified Mental Health Professional Determines it is necessary.

The settlement also stipulates that MSP must conduct mental health evaluations before disciplining an inmate with a severe mental illness to determine if the inmate’s infraction is a manifestation of their mental illness. If so, the inmate should not be disciplined.

Additionally, the settlement says, “under no circumstances shall a prisoner receive a disciplinary write-up for self-harm or conduct that is primarily associated with self-harm.” The settlement also ends the practice of withholding food or water to discipline inmates with a severe mental illness.

In her statement, Bright from the DOC also noted the negotiation was costly: “Finally, the settlement of this time-consuming litigation at taxpayer expense will allow the department to continue focusing its resources on its public safety mission and serving the inmates under its care.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.