HELENA — Advocates who filed a federal lawsuit over Montana's treatment of mentally ill prisoners say they are optimistic the matter can still be resolved through negotiations with state corrections officials.
Disability Rights Montana sued seven top officials with the state Department of Corrections and Department of Public Health and Human Services Monday over allegations of cruel and unusual punishment and due process violations.
The advocacy group says inmates found "guilty but mentally ill" and sentenced to the custody of the health department are transferred from the Montana State Hospital to the Deer Lodge prison to free bed space or to avoid treating prisoners disliked by hospital staff.
Kyle Gray, an attorney for the advocacy group, said in the lawsuit that inmates at the prison are routinely locked in solitary confinement for months or years. Their medication and treatment are discontinued. They can be deprived of clothes, bedding, proper food and human contact as part of behavior-management plans that punish prisoners for actions resulting from their mental illness, according to the lawsuit.
Corrections spokeswoman Judy Beck and health department spokesman Jon Ebelt said their agencies have not been served the lawsuit and they had no comment.
The lawsuit asks a judge to make sure each guilty but mentally ill prisoner receives adequate due process before being transferred to the prison and to ensure the seriously mentally ill at the prison receive adequate care.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, one of the disability-rights group's legal representatives, said negotiations are continuing with the Department of Corrections despite the filing in U.S. District Court in Butte.
"We filed a lawsuit but would prefer to resolve the issue in a cooperative manner," ACLU spokeswoman Amy Cannata said. "We are in active negotiations with DOC and are optimistic about them."
Disability Rights Montana filed the lawsuit after it and the ACLU detailed the alleged violations in a letter to the Department of Corrections. The groups said their findings came from a yearlong investigation of the prison system.
In February, Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista wrote in reply that officials take the allegations seriously and would analyze them.
About 300 of the Montana State Prison's 1,500 inmates were mentally ill in 2011, but the prison's mental health treatment unit contains 12 beds, some of which are regularly empty, the lawsuit alleges.
Batista is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as is DPHHS Director Richard Opper. The other defendants are Montana State Hospital administrator John Glueckert, DOC Health Services Bureau Chief Cathy Redfern, prison Warden Leroy Kirkegaard, prison psychiatrist Peter Edwards and prison mental health director Jill Buck.