ACLU: Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners Lacking

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS — Advocacy groups said Friday that a yearlong investigation of Montana’s corrections system found “systemic” mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners, including their placement in solitary confinement for months or even years and the routine denial of needed medicines.

The findings were detailed in a letter to state officials from the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and Disability Rights Montana. The ACLU warned it will sue the state if changes aren’t made.

ACLU attorney Anna Conley said the problems with the state’s treatment of the mentally ill prisoners occur regularly at both Montana State Prison near Deer Lodge and the state mental hospital at Warm Springs. She said defendants sent to Warm Springs for treatment after being found guilty but mentally ill are routinely transferred to the prison, where any treatment they were getting quickly dries up.

“They are often taken off medications, in some cases very serious, antipsychotics medications. Then they are often re-diagnosed at the state prison where staff will diagnose them as ‘faking it,'” Conley said.

Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista wrote in a reply letter provided by his staff that officials take the allegations seriously and will analyze them.

“The department is part of concerted and ongoing effort that has, for the past year, been focusing on how best to provide mental health services to offenders and others,” Batista wrote. “I remain hopeful that you will join us in participating and supporting the cooperative initiatives already underway.

Conley said state officials were aware of the changes they need to be making but have not been not making them. She asked the state to work with her group and Disability Rights Montana to discuss potential resolutions.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Judy Beck said the agency would continue to review the allegations in coming weeks, but no decision has been made on what the next step will be.

Batista was out of the office until next week and not available for comment, Beck said.

In 2012, state officials settled an ACLU lawsuit over a juvenile inmate in solitary confinement and agreed to change some procedures. The settlement called for a top-level review after a juvenile has been in solitary confinement or a behavior management program for longer than 72 hours.

It also mandated new safeguards for mentally ill prisoners placed into solitary confinement, such as private treatment sessions.

Conley described the reality of treatment for prisoners in solitary confinement as far different.

She said inmates held in isolation for up to 23 hours a day are visited by a mental health provider once a week, when they are asked simply “are you OK” through the cell door.

“There is almost no treatment,” Conley said. “They generally aren’t given any help even if they ask for it.”

Beck said she could not immediately respond to the claim.

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