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Montana Jail Fresh Air/Exercise Lawsuit Certified as Class Action, Then Settles

The U.S. District Court for the District of Montana granted class certification in a lawsuit alleging that the Missoula County Detention Facility (MCDF) deprives prisoners of fresh air and outdoor exercise. Following the class certification, the suit settled a year later in October 2013.

The plaintiffs in the case had moved to certify a class consisting of present and future MCDF prisoners who are held in Housing Unit 2 and the Juvenile Detention Center for at least a month and are denied fresh air and outdoor exercise. They also proposed a subclass of female prisoners held at MCDF.

The defendants did not oppose the motion, which was granted by the district court on October 17, 2012. The court found that the requisite class certification requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a) and (b) had been satisfied.

The district court first held that the numerosity requirement was satisfied due to the “fluid composition” of MCDF’s prisoner population. “The commonality requirement is met ... because the plaintiffs and the proposed class have all allegedly suffered the same injury,” the court wrote. Moreover, the typicality requirement was satisfied because “the claims of the named, representative parties are the same as those of the proposed class.”

The district court did not identify any conflict of interest and found “plaintiffs’ counsel are both qualified and experienced attorneys,” satisfying the adequacy of representation requirement.

Observing that “in the penal context, Rule 23(b)(2) certification is a common avenue for enabling a class of prisoners to challenge the constitutionality of prison conditions,” the court held that the proposed class satisfied the rule’s requirements. “A favorable ruling for the proposed class would mean a remedy for the class and subclass with access to fresh air and outdoor exercise. That single remedy would provide relief to all members of the class.”

The defendants filed a motion to set aside the class certification order, which was denied by the district court in January 2013. The case subsequently settled, with the court approving the settlement and entering a consent decree and judgment on October 31, 2013.

Pursuant to the settlement agreement, “Missoula County agrees to construct outdoor areas directly accessible from Housing Unit 2 and the Juvenile Detention Center....” The outdoor recreation areas will each have a basketball hoop and shall be completed within six months of the district court’s approval of the settlement.

Prisoners held in MCDF, including in Housing Unit 2 and the Juvenile Detention Center, shall be afforded outdoor recreation “for (1) one hour, five days per week. Prisoners will be allowed to run, jog, or engage in calisthenics in the outdoor recreation area.” Coats will be provided to prisoners who use the outdoor areas during winter months.

“Prisoners may be denied access to outdoor recreation only in extraordinary circumstances and upon a finding that providing access to outdoor recreation may create a danger that the prisoner will injure himself or herself or others,” the settlement states. “Where legitimate safety, security, and medical concerns are apparent, MCDF administrators may disallow outdoor recreation.”

MCDF must keep logs of prisoners’ access to the outdoor recreation areas and allow plaintiffs’ counsel to review the logs during the two-year period that the consent decree is in effect. Attorneys’ fees will be awarded to the plaintiffs by order of the court or stipulation between the parties. The plaintiffs were represented by the ACLU of Montana and Missoula attorney Greg Munro. See: Chief Goes Out v. Missoula County, U.S.D.C. (D. MT), Case No. 9:12-cv-00155-DWM.

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Related legal case

Chief Goes Out v. Missoula County