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Reginald Michael and Cynthia Wolken

Reg Michael and Cynthia Wolken of the Montana Department of Corrections take questions from the audience during a session of the Montana Association of Counties Midwinter Conference at the Red Lion Hotel and Convention Center in February. The department announced on Thursday it would close the 25-bed infirmary in Lewistown by late July. 

The infirmary in Lewistown that houses sick state prison inmates will close by late July, sending at least seven men back to prison and saving the Department of Corrections $2.7 million, the department announced Thursday.

The facility opened in 2012 as a secure wing of the state nursing home, the Montana Mental Health Nursing Care Center. It houses older male inmates with serious, long-term health problems. 

Of the 23 inmates currently at the 25-bed infirmary, seven will be returned to the Montana State Prison, which will have to figure out how to address their chronic physical and mental health needs.

Thirteen of the inmates could move to a separate portion of the same Lewistown facility, the state nursing home, because they are eligible for medical parole. Many are elderly and have dementia or mobility problems, the department said.

Those 13 inmates would need the approval of the Board of Pardons and Parole and Department of Public Health and Human Services to do so, or they'd go to the prison instead, the department said. DPHHS runs the state nursing home.

The other three inmates will complete their sentences in the coming months and be released, the DOC said.

The move is expected to save the department $2,709,650 for the 11 months that will remain in fiscal year 2019 once the wing has closed, including $2,038,923 in contract costs with DPHHS and in savings on pharmaceutical and outside medical costs. That total dollar savings also includes $670,727 in staff reductions.

“The Department of Corrections is continuing to look at options that will allow us to live within our budget,” Director Reginald Michael said in a press release. “Given the cuts mandated by the last Legislature, we are weighing the costs and benefits of various programs, and identifying ways to implement more cost-effective services.”

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The closure will add pressure to the men’s prison, which is currently operating over capacity. The prison could be receiving inmates with dementia as a result of the closure, the department confirmed.

"The Department’s Clinical Services staff are evaluating the inmates to determine the appropriate treatment and housing," spokeswoman Judy Beck said in an email. 

The department had previously cited increased liabilities to the state if the infirmary were to close, reducing care for those inmates. Asked Thursday if the department was still concerned about potential lawsuits, Beck declined to respond.

The nine corrections employees who worked in security at the infirmary will be given the option to transfer to similar positions at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings or the Pine Hills Correctional Facility in Miles City, the department said.

The staff who provided medical care in the infirmary are employed by DPHHS and will remain at the facility, working on the state nursing home side.

DPHHS has not yet decided how it will use the infirmary wing once it empties in late July.

“We know there is a tremendous need in Montana for the mental health nursing care services this facility provides,” DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan said in the press release. “Our staff there provide excellent care, and in the coming months we will closely evaluate ways to utilize this space going forward.”

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