Lake County Inmates Allege Inhumane Jail Conditions

Lawsuit against county officials alleges discriminatory practices against inmates and denial of religious freedom

By Maggie Dresser
Lake County Courthouse in Polson on Feb. 22, 2017. Beacon file photo.

Thirty-eight Lake County Detention Center inmates on March 28 filed a lawsuit suing the county alleging inhumane and discriminatory jail conditions and violating constitutional rights.

Filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, the complaint alleges the jail is overcrowded and that its infrastructure is deteriorating, while inmates are deprived of basic sanitation, medical care, exercise space and sunlight.

Aloysius D. Black Crow is the lead plaintiff in the consolidated class action lawsuit, while the list of defendants includes Lake County Commissioners Bill Barron, Steve Stanley and Gale Decker; Lake County Executive Administrative Assistant Kate Stinger; Lake County Sheriff Don Bell; and Undersheriff Ben Woods. The complaint alleges the conditions persist despite Lake County having settled a similar lawsuit in 1995, promising to make improvements.

“Over the past several decades, the jail has only grown less habitable,” according to a summary of the complaint from plaintiffs’ attorneys. “Inmates are often left without hot water and basic toiletries, they do not have access to fresh air or sunlight, they are forced to sleep on the floor, and they must bang on doors and shout to get the attention of guards. Further, mold grows on walls and mattresses, the heating and ventilation systems are inadequate, and there is frequently standing water on the floor.” 

According to the lawsuit, many of the inmates who are suing the county are enrolled members of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). Despite their tribal affiliation, the filing alleges, the plaintiffs are exclusively offered Christian religious practices while being denied access to Native American religious ceremonies. The alleged actions are violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the plaintiffs’ rights to free exercise of religion and equal protection, the filing states.

The complaint also alleges that inmates are charged for requesting medical care, which violates rights to adequate, cost-free healthcare secured by the Hellgate Treaty of 1855.

“The conditions in the Lake County jail evidence not only disrespect for inmates’ constitutional rights but disregard for their humanity,” Constance Van Kley, the litigation director at Upper Seven Law, the legal firm representing the plaintiffs, stated in a press release. “These discriminatory, dangerous conditions are unlawful and they need to change.”

Timothy Bechtold, who is based out of Missoula, is also representing the inmates.

Lake County officials declined to comment on the case. The plaintiffs seek a remediation plan to rectify jail conditions, award plaintiffs for attorneys’ fees and award enrolled tribal members for medical care.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.