Lawsuit Over Transfer of Mentally Ill Patients to Go Forward

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon ruled Thursday

By AMY BETH HANSON, Associated Press

HELENA — A lawsuit that challenges the way the state decides to transfer mentally ill inmates from the Montana State Hospital to prison can move forward, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon ruled Thursday that Disability Rights Montana had raised sufficient issues for its case against the director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services and the administrator of the Montana State Hospital to go to trial.

The advocacy group says that defendants who are found “guilty but mentally ill” and sentenced to the custody of DPHHS can later be transferred from the state hospital to prison based on the recommendation of professionals providing treatment to the inmate. They argue the inmates aren’t given reasonable notice, any information about why the decision to transfer them was made or an opportunity to appeal.

State law allows the health department to transfer defendants to “another correctional, mental health, residential or developmental disabilities facility that will better serve the defendant’s custody, care and treatment needs.”

The advocacy group argues the moves actually harm the defendants because they are transferred from a facility where they receive treatment and therapy for mental illness into one where “virtually no treatment takes place.” Inmates can be placed in solitary confinement or face other restrictions without prison officials taking into account whether that will harm the inmate’s mental health, the complaint argues.

The complaint names three inmates who were moved from the state hospital to prison, were taken off their medication and were punished by being placed in solitary confinement — in one case for over three years.

Such cases “demonstrate that prisoners transferred to the prison do not receive the care required to treat their mental illness,” the complaint alleges.

The lawsuit names DPHHS Director Richard Opper and Montana State Hospital administrator John Glueckert in their official capacities. They sought to have the case dismissed on several grounds, including that any injury to the inmates was as a result of actions taken by prison officials.

Haddon dismissed a similar lawsuit Disability Rights Montana filed against Department of Corrections officials.

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