A state agency has determined that the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings likely discriminated against an inmate on the basis of her religious beliefs.

The preliminary findings by the Montana Human Rights Bureau mean that the case will proceed to a formal hearing in Billings, after a requisite, 30-day effort at mediation failed last month.

The bureau wrote in a February report that the investigators “found reasonable cause to believe unlawful discrimination occurred,” following a probe into several allegations contained in Mayson Simmons’ complaint, filed last August.

Investigators did not find sufficient evidence to back up Simmons’ claims that she was denied a Jehovah’s Witness bible, or that she was discriminated against based on her disability. But the report states that the Department of Corrections likely violated the law by allowing inmates of other religious faiths to use the prison’s chapel for worship services, while denying access to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The state bureau punted on the other allegation: that the Department of Corrections discriminated against her on the basis of gender, by “providing male inmates (at the Montana State Prison) with opportunities to learn trade skills that are not provided to female inmates,” including ranch work, auto repair and veterinary assistant training.

Prison officials interviewed by the investigators denied that any discrimination, religious or otherwise, had taken place, according to the report. In the case of the religious chapel access, prison warden Jennie Hansen said that religious services are sometimes redirected to other areas in the prison when there aren’t enough security staff to accompany the religious group. This policy applies to all religious services equally, Hansen told the bureau’s investigators.

But Carlin Anderson, a Jehovah’s Witness congregation elder who has conducted worship services at the prison since 2005, said otherwise, according to the report. Anderson said that he had to speak with a prison official to convince her to stop taking the religious group off the chapel schedule after she designated the weekly services as a class, instead of a formal religious worship.

A bureau investigator found Anderson to be a “credible and reliable witness,” according to the report, and determined that Simmons provided a preponderance of evidence to prove discrimination occurred.

The other unresolved complaint — whether the women’s prison offers classes and vocational training commensurate with the much larger men’s facility in Deer Lodge — will also be decided during the formal hearing. That hearing is currently scheduled to take place later this month.

The Department of Corrections insisted that the two prisons’ programs were comparable, and that differences between the two owed mainly to their unique settings and differences in population size. The men’s prison, which houses more than 1,600 inmates, is situated next to a 38,000-acre ranch operated in part by inmates. The prison complex itself houses a vehicle maintenance shop, furniture factory, print shop and license plate factory.

The women’s prison, located on a 3-acre plot on Billings’ South Side, has “significantly less space at its disposal,” department officials argued. While the roughly 220-inmate facility includes a greenhouse, facilities for dog obedience training and embroidery and screen printing shops, “trades which require a lot of space for equipment, operation and storage are simply not feasible” at the prison, according to the report.

Simmons, speaking by phone Wednesday, said the complaint is part of her long-running effort to push women’s equality within the state’s correctional system.

“I want to see women empowered in this state,” Simmons said. “One of the big reasons women are not successful in the community when they get out (of prison) … they’re either working housekeeping, fast food or waitressing. They’re not getting the same kind of jobs that men are. They’re not able to make a living and raise a family.”

The bureau’s report notes that comparing the two is complicated. Programming at both facilities is continually changing and limited by staffing shortages, and similar court cases in other states have acknowledged arguments similar to the department’s. A court in Oregon ruled in 1994 that “the number of classes offered should at least be proportionate,” according to the report.

Ultimately, the bureau opted against reaching a conclusion on the sex-discrimination allegation. Because it had already found “reasonable cause” on a separate allegation, the entire complaint will be considered during the formal hearing.

In a statement, the department denied any allegations of "unlawful discrimination," and added that it does not agree with the results of the investigation. The statement also suggested the issues surrounding use of the chapel "might be the result of miscommunication or a mistake."

"The Department of Corrections values the religious volunteers that take time and use their talents to provide faith formation within their facilities," Amy Barton, a department spokeswoman, added.

Data provided by the bureau show that while discrimination complaints by Montana’s prison inmates are relatively common, findings of “reasonable cause” are rare. From 2014 through 2018, state human rights investigators concluded there was “cause” in only three out of 57 such complaints that have been closed.

Another 47 of those complaints, or 77 percent, were either dismissed or withdrawn. The remainder was resolved through an agreement between the two parties — they either reached a voluntary agreement after mediation, or the plaintiff withdrew after receiving some sort of benefit.

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