Violence flourishes at Montana's youth prison for boys, and staff use solitary confinement as a crutch to help curb it, according to a federally mandated civil rights watchdog.
The Department of Corrections denies the allegations and is working to schedule an interview with The Billings Gazette to provide additional information.
In a report released Sept. 10 by Disability Rights Montana, the group says Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City places youth inmates in solitary for months on end. It defines solitary confinement as being confined to a cell for 23 hours a day or more and says that while not written in the facility's policy book, the 23-hour standard is a regular practice.
Disability Rights Montana is federally funded and mandated, and operates under federal laws protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities.
The Miles City facility houses male offenders ages 10 to 17. (It’s now also housing adults in a separate facility on the same campus due to overcrowding in other facilities around the state and a reduction in youth incarceration rates.)
One juvenile inmate, referred to in the report as “John Doe,” whose case served as the focal point for the Disability Rights investigation, spent approximately 99 of his first 234 days in solitary confinement, according to Disability Rights' findings.
He arrived at the facility Oct. 18, 2017, when he was 17, after twice breaking and entering a family friend's home and driving "erratically" with a 12-year-old passenger, report author Roberta Zenker said.
A 'subculture of violence'
The report warned of a "subculture of violence" at the facility that "some staff appear unwilling or unable" to thwart. Disability Rights Montana is concerned about the safety of youth at Pine Hills, the report said.
"John Doe was violently assaulted on his first night at the facility by total strangers as if to be initiated into this culture," the report said.
John Doe was attacked again five days later, according to the report. As recently as Aug. 24, he was sent to the emergency room after four other boys attacked him, leaving him with a concussion, brain swelling and bruised ribs, the report says, citing an interview with John Doe.
Not all facility records, such as daily logs or incident reports, were made public with the report published Monday.
In a written statement, Corrections Director Reginald Michael said the report was missing important information.
“Unfortunately, Disability Rights Montana issued its report about Pine Hills without all the relevant facts. We offered to provide important additional information, but they declined," Michael said.
Michael went on to say the department was proud of the team at Pine Hills and the programming it provided.
“Pine Hills places the highest priority on safely managing the most serious young male offenders in the state, some of them with gang affiliations,” he wrote.
71 days in solitary
The watchdog report said John Doe's grades and mental health suffered as a result of his being kept in solitary.
Under Pine Hills' practices for solitary confinement, boys are given one hour a day to shower, exercise and spend "free and leisure time," the report said. Teachers drop off a packet of schoolwork for the student to complete on his own, in his cell, according to the report.
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John Doe's grades steadily declined from mostly A's and B's during his first academic quarter, to mostly C's and D's the next, to straight F's in the final academic quarter, according to the report. He was in solitary for the entire fourth academic quarter, Disability Rights said, citing school records.
That meant 71 straight days of solitary confinement, according to the watchdog report. He was taken off that status roughly a week before Zenker, the Disability Rights staff attorney, visited for her investigation, she said.
John Doe was sent to solitary for offenses ranging from throwing a box of cards at staff to "taking a swing" at another youth, according to the report.
The time he spent 71 days in solitary came after he entered the control cage and attempted to let other youth in solitary out of their cells. Two staff wrestled him to the ground and in the ensuing struggle, one staff member's wrist broke in two places. John Doe faces felony charges in Custer County District Court for the incident.
He spent 11 days in solitary in March after making verbal threats about beating up staff and opening other inmates' cells. The report contains minimal information about the incident.
Disability Rights blames the solitary confinement for the teen's declining mental state. Staff had to increase John Doe's dosage of psychiatric medication at one point, the report states. After one two-week period of solitary, staff began to worry he was hallucinating and talking to the ants in his room, the report says, citing an entry in the youth behavior log.
A different juvenile inmate reportedly asked staff to put him in solitary confinement as a way to keep him safe after a fight with other boys in May.
“Just make me R1 so I can’t come out of my room,” the unnamed boy told correctional officers. “If I can’t come out of my room, I can’t get beat up. These guys are making it really hard to be here.”
The quote was copied from an incident report Pine Hills staff filed that Disability Rights Montana reviewed as part of its investigation, according to Zenker, the author.
"R1" refers to "restriction 1," which the Pine Hills policy manual defines as "a classification that may be assigned to youth who are considered a high security risk based on the nature of the committing offense, a history of escape, physically or sexually assaultive behavior, or a record of escape/assaultive behavior at the facility."
Disability Rights Montana investigates allegations of discrimination against people with disabilities. It considers John Doe disabled due to his diagnoses, reactive attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol use disorder. The report cites a confidential psycho-social evaluation for the medical conditions.
For the report released Monday, Disability Rights Montana conducted two site visits, interviewed Pine Hills administrators, nursing staff and Tony Navarro, the former correctional officer who contacted the organization about John Doe’s case, prompting the investigation. The organization also reviewed student records, daily facility logs and the facility’s policy manual.
The report applauded other aspects of Pine Hills’ programming, saying educational staff were dedicated and extracurricular offerings like a metal shop and outdoor garden were positive for the juvenile inmates. The state touted its improved vocational programming and treatment options at the facility in the DOC's 2017 biennial report.
Zenker, the report's author, said Pine Hills administrators and staff were accommodating of her investigation. Zenker continues to speak with John Doe periodically over the phone, she said. The teen is still being held at Pine Hills, but he will age out when he turns 18 next month, Zenker said.
Montana lawmakers have been studying the issue of solitary confinement and reviewing proposals since 2011. An interim committee recently issued a report on practices in Montana.
On Tuesday, the Law and Justice Committee voted down a bill draft that would have banned solitary confinement for juveniles and pregnant women, among other restrictions. It defined solitary as confinement alone in a cell for 22 hours or more a day. Opponents said the proposed law was too restrictive, and that solitary confinement was still a needed safety tool, even as the department works to reduce its use.