A human rights board’s investigation has found nothing to support a disabled inmate’s claim that he was discriminated against. But the man’s lawyer is objecting, saying the board’s ruling sends the message to state agencies that it won’t intervene when individuals are mistreated.
The Human Rights Bureau, an arm of the Department of Labor and Industry, filed a report on Jan. 25 concluding the Montana State Prison did not commit unlawful discrimination in its treatment of inmate Jeffrey Arthur Mewes.
Mewes, 57, was most recently a Missoula resident and is serving time for a fourth or subsequent DUI.
Back in August, Mewes filed a complaint with the bureau, saying prison staff failed to give him the cane or wheelchair he needed and placed him on an upper tier bunk despite knowing he had trouble walking. He also said they waited a month to get him medication for asthma, seizures and diabetes, and retaliated against him for speaking out.
Mewes named the state, the Department of Corrections and former warden Michael Fletcher in his complaint.
But in its response, a bureau investigator said the scope of Mewes’ complaint was broader than what the bureau could legally address, and that in the allegations it could address, it found no discrimination.
Specifically, the bureau found that while Mewes has a disability — including difficulty walking after injuries from a car crash — and requested accommodations for it during the first two and a half months of his stay, prison staff had “insufficient medical information to support his need for the accommodation,” when they did not immediately fulfill his request.
When prison staff obtained that information, they made the accommodations, the investigator found.
The bureau’s report was based on medical records, prison reports and interviews with 17 witnesses, including Mewes’ cellmate, doctors who treated him and Michael Fletcher, the prison warden who was fired last month.
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The bureau also found no evidence to support Mewes’ allegation that uneven pavement and poor lighting on an outdoor walkway led him to be “catapulted” onto the concrete, injuring his head, knee, back and neck.
Mewes had orchestrated the fall, one inmate told the bureau investigator. He had in fact slid out of the wheelchair intentionally after dragging his foot on the ground, the inmate said, and had previously said he’d wanted to fall out of the wheelchair so he could file a lawsuit.
In his objection to the findings, Mewes’ attorney, Michael Doggett, said the bureau failed to follow its own rules for analyzing complaints. Doggett said the burden was on the respondent to show whether prison staff denied the requested accommodation and refused to provide an effective alternative.
Doggett called on the Human Rights Commission to overturn the decision the bureau made against Mewes.
“If this decision is not overturned, (the Human Rights Bureau) is providing Respondents with carte blanche to discriminate against inmates in its care,” the attorney wrote.
Doggett's objection will be heard by the Human Rights Commission, likely at its next meeting in March.
The Human Rights Bureau gets roughly 20 complaints a year from inmates in Montana prisons, according to statistics provided by the bureau. Unlike Mewes’ complaint, many are filed pro se, or without an attorney.
Of the 110 complaints filed by inmates since 2013 against Montana State Prison, Montana Women’s Prison and Crossroads Correctional Center, 7, or 6.3 percent, resulted in a finding of discrimination.