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ACLU-Montana Report Paints Ugly Picture of County Jail Conditions

Understaffed. Underfunded. Unsafe. That's the assessment of Montana's jails by the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as published in a February 2015 report based on a statewide investigation of dozens of county lockups.

"With over 1,000 county detention center beds in Montana and increasing lengths of stays for pre-trial detainees, the number of complaints the ACLU receives from prisoners in county (jails) has mushroomed," said the report's authors, who visited 22 Montana county jails beginning in 2012, while interviewing jail administrators and reviewing more than 300 submitted questionnaires from prisoners to compile the data for the report.

The report enumerated myriad problems within the state's jails, including a high rate of prisoner suicides; inadequate medical and mental health care; the use of solitary confinement on the mentally-ill; a lack of fresh air, natural light and exercise opportunities; and visitation policies that bar prisoners from seeing their children or non-family members.

"For too long, counties have expected detention centers to house marginalized individuals with serious mental illness, addiction issues, and medical needs without giving these detention centers the funding or resources required to provide adequate care," the report said. "As a result, individuals charged with a crime often languish for months, and even years, in (Montana jails) where they are denied even some of the most basic necessities, such as underwear and sunlight."

The dire conditions resulted in nearly two-dozen suicides in Montana's jails between 2003 and 2009, according to the state's Public Health and Human Services (PHHS) department. The PHHS suicide prevention coordinator told the ACLU that prisoners in Montana's large detention centers—those with more than 250 prisoners—are four times more likely than the state's general population to commit suicide, while prisoners in small jails—those with fewer than 50 prisoners—are more than 15 times likelier than the U.S. general population to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, there are fewer guards to supervise prisoners, largely due to inadequate funding. Several counties rely on untrained sheriff's deputies and 911 dispatchers to monitor prisoners, and it's the "daily interaction between detention staff and prisoners," according to the ACLU, when counties "often incur significant liability for unconstitutional conditions, including use of force and inadequate medical and mental health treatment."

From reporting inadequate medical and mental health care to severe sanitation and plumbing issues or food with poor nutritional value, county detainees made it clear to the ACLU that "almost every detention center in Montana has an illusory and ineffective grievance system." Most jails, in fact, don't even respond to the majority of prisoner grievances, and some prisoners told the ACLU that they were afraid of filing grievances for fear of being punished or placed in solitary confinement.

"In many ways, county detention centers bear the brunt of the inefficacies of the justice system," the ACLU report concluded. "Given the financial constraints many counties experience, meaningful detention center and criminal justice reform are not only morally justifiable, but also financially necessary."

Source: "Locked in the Past: Montana’s Jails in Crisis," American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, February 2015;

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