ACLU, Montana Settle Women’s Prison Lawsuit

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS — Montana’s Department of Corrections will offer boot camp for female prisoners and cancel a mandatory treatment program that was criticized as degrading under a settlement announced Tuesday in a discrimination lawsuit.

The state also agreed to pay $50,000 in legal costs and a combined $12,000 to the seven current and former prisoners named in the case, according to settlement documents provided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.

The lawsuit began with a complaint filed in federal court last year by one of the plaintiffs, Susan Fish, who initially represented herself in the case. It targeted the prison’s 6-year-old “Right Living Community” program and the lack of a boot camp for women as an alternative to prison.

Fish and the others alleged they received little training and were forced to sing and participate in children’s games such as “Duck Duck Goose.” The plaintiffs also said the program established a prison hierarchy in which high-ranking inmates could take away privileges of fellow inmates who ranked lower.

“It ended up being degrading, non-rehabilitative and served no purpose at all but to create problems among prisoners,” said ACLU attorney Anna Conley. They had to participate in this whether they wanted to or not … If you refused to participate in this model, you would go to solitary confinement.”

Corrections attorney Ira Eakin said state officials were pleased to reach an amicable settlement in the case.

Regarding Right Living, Eakin said a review of the program undertaken after a new warden was hired at the Women’s Prison in the spring determined it was not as effective as more “traditional” rehabilitation programs. Whereas the discontinued program awarded privileges to prisoners based on their participation, the traditional approach offers privileges based on prisoner behavior, he said.

The settlement calls for the department to offer boot camp for women prisoners beginning Nov. 1 in Deer Lodge. Such a program is already available to male defendants and is based on a military discipline format.

Completion of boot camp can mean a chance for a reduced sentence, an option that had been denied women prisoners since the cancellation of female boot camp last decade.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Tasha Rainey, remains incarcerated at a pre-release center in Billings two years after a male co-defendant convicted of similar crimes was released on probation after successfully completing boot camp, lawyers said.

“In order to give female offenders who wanted to participate in boot camp the same opportunity, we agreed to bring back the boot camp for females,” said Eakin, who helped negotiate the settlement. He said up to four slots for women were planned, with the possibility of expanding that number in the future if demand is sufficient and the Legislature is willing to pay for it.

The prior cancellation of boot camp for women followed low participation and logistical problems stemming from having both males and females at the same facility in Deer Lodge, Eakin said.

Judy Beck, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, did not immediately respond to email and phone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Corrections attorneys said in an earlier response to the lawsuit that the Right Living program was substantially equivalent to programs for adult male offenders.

The department at one point sought to have Fish’s case dismissed on the grounds that she had not followed proper legal procedures, but the move was denied by U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby.

The settlement releases the state from any future liability in the case.

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