MISSOULA — An inquiry by the Missoulian has found that 20 people have died in custody since the Department of Corrections agency quietly decided to stop issuing public notices of deaths 10 months ago. The review found 15 of those deaths have occurred this year, a number higher than 2018 and 2019 combined, authorities said.
At least two in DOC custody have died this year by apparent suicides. Sixteen of the deaths involved prison inmates; the other four were in pre-release or treatment facilities, the newspaper found.
The Department of Corrections this week said issuing public notices of inmate deaths had always been an informal practice that officials “decided to move away from” in September, according to spokeswoman Carolynn Bright.
Democratic state Rep. Kathy Kelker of Billings, a member of the Law and Justice Interim Committee that conducts oversight over the Department of Corrections, said Thursday she was not aware of the number of inmates who had died this year.
“But, when something (a death) happens that is different from natural causes, we need to know about that,” Kelker said. “We don’t want to jump the gun and assume they haven’t thought it through at the Department of Corrections and to be very careful about privacy issues for inmates and families. I think it’s a balance we can figure out.”
Kelker said the number of deaths so far this year was “probably something we should look at” but stopped short of expressing concern without knowing the number of older prison inmates dying of natural causes.
The Department of Corrections website said only one person, an inmate at the Montana Women’s Prison, had tested positive for COVID-19.
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