Is it time to move the prison and state mental hospital?

October 13, 2022 4:22 am

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

The 2021 Legislature was indeed record setting: I’d challenge anyone to find a group of Montana lawmakers who have been sued so often or so successfully.

The final legal tally is still ongoing, but by my count, more than a dozen bills have been overturned and several million has been spent to defend what the lawmakers’ own attorneys had warned wasn’t just likely illegal, but laws that had been similarly crafted and struck down previously.

Now that Republicans have demonstrated both their political priorities as well as their conservative bonafides, leaving no doubt for anyone about their fealty to the GOP, is it too much to ask that we get back to governance instead of grandstanding?

Granted, the 2023 Legislature has a lot of real work to do in between boosting the places where guns can go, and deciding the places where transgender folks can’t. Even though lawmakers were warned of a looming housing catastrophe in 2021, they chose to throw up their hands, doing nothing while blaming local government or the free market.

Lawmakers continued to hear of perpetual problems in the state’s prison and hospital systems. In fairness to Gov. Greg Gianforte, these problems stretch back several administrations, including a number of high-profile scandals at the Department of Corrections during former Gov. Steve Bullock’s administration. At least Gianforte’s head, former Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin has managed to stay employed for longer than six months.

However, Warm Springs and Deer Lodge respectively have been problems for both Democrats and Republicans. And, it appears the problems will continue as chronic staffing shortages at the men’s prison continue to raise safety issues and lead to more stories of burnout, conflict and likely more lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the state is spending millions to figure out why the feds, in a fit of desperation and disgust, cut off funding to Warm Springs, the state’s repository for the cases no one else wants. Quite frankly, reading through the reports and talking with people who have spent time there, it sounds like something out of an episode of “American Horror Story” more than a place of healing and wellness.

The Gianforte administration has been more transparent than its predecessors in addressing the problem and not trying to stonewall any coverage, unlike the Bullock administration. Lack of funding and employees speaking publicly about the dangerous conditions in both spaces is harder to ignore. However, no one seems to doubt: Both Deer Lodge and Warm Springs’ institutions are troubled with few signs that they will just improve on their own.

And that’s really the point: In fact, my Republican friend and former longtime lawmaker Jeff Essmann has said it succinctly on Twitter:


Maybe the reason for the issues at the state hospital and men’s prison aren’t just a matter of politics or lousy leadership. Indeed, those are factors, but maybe it’s time for Montana lawmakers to commission a study and ask the question: Is it time to move these necessary state institutions to new campuses, ones that are not so geographically isolated?

Is it time to make an investment for the next 100 years?

Montana needs a viable, safe state prison.

And, as much as lawmakers and politicians tout the concept of decentralized mental health support systems in local Montana communities, the reason most patients end up in Warm Springs is because the communities from which they come simply are not equipped to handle them. In other words, while decentralized, community-based health care is a great option for many, we still need the safety net of a larger, more specialized institution. I can’t imagine that will suddenly change.

As much as such a concept might draw the undying enmity of residents in Deer Lodge and the few who live in Warm Springs, if lawmakers really want to solve the twin problems of the prison and state hospital, it seems like shuffling the people and leadership is the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

And you have to wonder why both Democrats and Republicans have seemed to flounder on the same issue. Maybe it’s not that taking care of criminals or complex mental health cases is extremely challenging. Maybe we haven’t located these facilities correctly. Or maybe they were located in Warm Springs and Deer Lodge at a time when those places made more sense.

It’s time to admit that doing the same things over and over expecting different results seems similar to the kind of behavior that gets a person sent to one of those institutions – it’s either criminal or insane.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.