HELENA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the state Department of Corrections will ask a U.S. judge Friday to approve a settlement in a class-action lawsuit tied to conditions at a prison following a deadly riot nearly 30 years ago.
The state settled the initial lawsuit in 1995, addressing several issues including inadequate medical care, a lack of rehabilitation and work programs, and a failure to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But court-appointed experts in 2013 determined Montana State Prison was not meeting ADA requirements because inmates with physical and mental disabilities didn't have adequate access to the same facilities and programming, such as vocational training, prison jobs and education programs.
After several years of negotiations, the state and ACLU reached the settlement that will be presented to U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch. His recommendation will be forwarded to U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy.
Under the deal, the corrections department has agreed to add wheelchair ramps, grab bars and other accommodations to comply with ADA standards. The prison also is updating several policies, including fire evacuation plans for inmates with disabilities.
Inmates can't be disciplined, placed on a behavior management plan or classified to a higher level of security based on a disability or for behavior that stems from a mental illness or physical disability, unless they are a danger to themselves or others, according to the settlement.
It also mandates staff training on the new policies, requires any new construction to meet ADA standards and allows for two years of monitoring to ensure the changes continue.
Without access to appropriate accommodations and programs, people with physical and mental disabilities can be denied opportunities to complete programs they need to be paroled, Eric Balaban, senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, said last year when a preliminary settlement was announced.
Montana did not acknowledge wrongdoing but settled to avoid litigation costs, the deal said. The state has agreed to pay attorney costs to the ACLU and the Civil Rights Education Enforcement Center.
"The hearing on Friday seeks final approval from the court of the settlement agreement so the parties can move forward to implement the terms of the agreement," said Colleen Ambrose, legal counsel for the Department of Corrections.
She said the department wanted to keep cooperating with the ACLU and civil rights center as they move into the monitoring phase.
ADA compliance was the final issue to be settled in a lawsuit over prison conditions following a 1991 riot in the prison's maximum security building. Five inmates being held in protective custody were killed. Inmates complained about food quality, medical care, a lack of exercise and the use of restraints.
Mike Mahoney, who was an associate warden at the time of the riot, told The Associated Press in 2001 that it was "a real turning point in corrections in Montana," leading to improved security and a better-trained staff.
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