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Montana Pays $2,500 to Settle Prisoner’s Failure-to-Protect Claim

by Mark Wilson

On March 9, 2022, Montana prison officials paid $2,500 to settle a federal suit alleging that they failed to protect a state prisoner from a known threat of brutal beating by other prisoners.

Andrew Yellowbear, Jr., is an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. He is also a Wyoming citizen held by the state Department of Corrections in Montana State Prison (MSP). On June 12, 2018, he was nominated and elected “Pipe Carrier” for Native American Religious ceremonies in his section of the prison.

Pipe Carriers are responsible for making weekly botanical requests – “an approved combination of pipe tobacco, bearberry and red willow,” according to DOC rules – and returning any unused portion to Terrie Stefalo, the prison’s Religious Activities Coordinator. They are also forbidden from giving communal botanicals to any individual for personal, non-religious use.

On June 18, 2020, prisoner Michael Laforge demanded that Yellowbear give him the tobacco mixture or resign as Pipe Carrier. Laforge threatened Yellowbear with violence if he refused. But Yellowbear stood his ground and told Laforge that he would neither give him the tobacco nor resign.

Following the Pipe Ceremony on July 21, 2020, prisoners Gordon Bacon and Chad Goodgun told Yellowbear that Laforge sent them to order Yellowbear once again to resign as Pipe Carrier. If he refused, they added, they were to assault him.

Two days later, on July 23, 2020, a confidential informant told MSP case worker Monique Miller that Yellowbear “is going to be assaulted because of his crime and they don’t want him to be a Pipe Carrier.” However, Miller apparently did not act on this information.

Yellowbear told Stefalo about the threats from Laforge, Bacon and Goodgun the next day, July 24, 2020. She reportedly prepared an incident report for shift command and said she was also alerting B-Unit security of the threats. Yet no prison officials took further action.

After the Pipe Ceremony on July 28, 2020, Bacon, Goodgun and fellow prisoner Lonnie Shield entered Yellowbear’s housing unit and brutally beat him. Yellowbear suffered a concussion, left-shoulder injuries and other serious bodily injuries. After the attack, he continued to suffer post-concussive syndrome and shoulder pain.

After exhausting administrative remedies, Yellowbear brought suit in federal court for the District of Montana against 11 MSP employees, including Stefalo and Warden Jim Salmonsen. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he alleged they failed to protect him from a known threat of violence, in violation of his Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which included costs and fees for Yellowbear’s attorney, Timothy M. Bechtold of Bechtold Law Firm, PLLC in Missoula. See: Yellowbear v. Salmonsen, USDC (D. Mt.), Case No. 2:21-cv-00059.

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