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Montana Agrees to Change Policies for Treatment of Mentally Ill Juveniles in Adult Prison

by David M. Reutter

To settle a lawsuit filed by a juvenile prisoner, the Montana State Prison (MSP) has agreed to adopt or change policies that regulate the care and treatment provided to prisoners under the age of 18.

The plaintiff who filed the suit, Raistlen Katka, can only be described as a difficult young man to manage in prison. Whether it was mental illness or his treatment at MSP that caused his “antisocial behavior” was a matter of dispute in the litigation. The state court’s order on a motion for a preliminary injunction spelled out the rocky road that Katka had traveled.

At the age of fifteen, Katka waived his right to be transferred to youth court. He then pleaded guilty to two counts of felony assault on a peace officer, and the prosecutor agreed in return to dismiss two other felony charges for assaulting guards at the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Center.

Following the imposition of concurrent five-year prison terms for each count, Katka was taken to the Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center (MASC) for boot camp screening. At a February 20, 2008 meeting with the MASC screening committee, Katka became uncooperative and vulgar, threatened to “bash in” the head of the facility’s director, threw a chair into a window and kicked open a door. He was then taken, at the age of 16, to the Montana State Prison.

During his incarceration at MSP, Katka received approximately 50 infractions for more than 35 separate incidents of misconduct – including fights with other prisoners, damaging sprinkler heads in his cell, flooding his cell, breaking through fences in the recreation yard, threatening to assault staff, and numerous incidents of encouraging and participating in gang activity. He also attempted suicide four times.

On August 18, 2011, the state court entered an order that prohibited MSP from placing Katka on restricted administrative segregation (RAS) and on a behavior modification plan (BMP). The RAS is a two-year program that imposes 23-hour lockdown and one hour of recreation five days a week and 24-hour lockdown the other two days. There are no visits or phone calls during the first year of RAS, and any rule infractions reset the clock. BMP is an “isolation cell” that prevents self-harm or destructive behavior.

At the preliminary injunction hearing, the court heard from a variety of mental health professionals. All agreed that Katka suffered from depression and most agreed he had post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of the experts found he also had antisocial personality disorder.

Psychiatrist Terry Kupers and psychologist Dr. Brenda Roche found that RAS and BMP triggered and exacerbated Katka’s mental illness. However, Dr. Virginia Hill, with the Montana State Hospital, testified that Katka’s mental condition did not prevent him from being placed on BMP or in RAS.

In granting the preliminary injunction, the court found that Katka’s current specialized treatment plan was “working well and should be continued.” That plan had him in the prison’s Mental Health Treatment Unit, where he earned his GED.

Following the entry of the preliminary injunction, the parties agreed to settle the case on April 12, 2012 to avoid going to trial. The settlement requires changes in how the state handles prisoners under age 18 upon their entry into the prison system. It provides that juveniles will be classified as “Medium II/Unrestricted Custody or less” unless they have “a significant institutional history or high severity of offense.”

The classification procedure “shall address appropriate housing, educational programming, additional programming opportunities, vocational training, psychological treatment, and medical treatment.” Ninety-day reviews are to occur until the prisoner turns 18. Additionally, juveniles cannot be placed in isolated confinement (including RAS) for longer than 72 hours without approval of the Director of Corrections or the facility’s warden, plus certification from the mental health team.

The settlement also defines serious mental illness, sets protocols for making “locked housing decisions” for juveniles with serious mental illness and requires the implementation of suicide prevention policies.

“The effects of solitary confinement on any inmate are profound, but are even more pronounced for adolescents whose brains are still developing and for persons with mental illness,” said attorney Andrée Larose. “On top of that, experience nationwide shows that solitary really does not work. This settlement is a step in the right direction toward making sure inmates are treated humanely and consistent with the Montana Constitution, and are incarcerated in conditions that promote successful reintegration when they are released.”

Katka was represented by the ACLU of Montana and ACLU cooperating attorneys Ron Waterman and Andrée Larose. See: Katka v. Montana, Montana First Judicial District Court, Case No. BDV 2009-1163.

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Related legal case

Katka v. Montana