Women in state custody have "severely restricted opportunities" for educational programs, job training and other privileges granted to men in the prison system, according to a complaint filed by 48 inmates at the Montana Women's Prison.
Those charges - filed last year with the state Human Rights Bureau - were granted a "reasonable cause" finding by the state agency this spring and could proceed to a hearing next year if the complaint survives a procedural challenge by the Montana State Department of Corrections.
Ronald F. Waterman, an attorney representing the inmates, said the complaint was initially brought in November 2004, without legal representation, by then-inmate Faye Slice, who included signatures of dozens of other inmates as fellow complainants in the action.
The group charged that the state is guilty of "institutionalized sex discrimination" by failing to provide the same programs and opportunities to women that men receive in the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. Privileges they claim are limited to men include:
A wildland fire suppression crew in Deer Lodge.
A hobby store allowing inmates to sell arts and crafts to the public.
A pre-release program available for one year before parole eligibility, whereas women must wait until six months before eligibility for similar programs.
A lending library with access to interlibrary loans and better legal resources.
College courses available only at the Montana State Prison.
A prison commissary allowing twice-weekly purchases of up to $80, whereas women are limited to one $30 purchase per week in Billings.
Better training, wages
The women also charge that prisoners in the Montana State Prison receive on-the-job training and better wages in a variety of prison jobs. They allege there have been "no efforts to secure a legitimate training program" for the Montana Women's Prison, according to a report by a Human Rights Bureau investigator that summarizes arguments on both sides.
Attorneys representing the state Corrections Department countered there were "legitimate business reasons" for the differences, such as the location and size of facilities, offender population, and the length of prison terms, the bureau's investigative report said.
"There's an economy of scale you get when you have more people at the men's prison," Bob Anez, a spokesman for the department, said this week in a telephone interview. "You're not going to be able to operate a ranch in Billings with 220 inmates."
There are approximately 1,500 inmates in Deer Lodge, Anez said.
Anez denied that women have fewer or inferior educational opportunities than men, and said administrators at the Montana Women's Prison have been working for four years to improve the vocational offerings available to women.
The prison has taken steps to implement a cosmetology program and to expand the embroidery program it currently offers, Anez said.
"There are some interesting programs over there, and we're trying to make them better and more comprehensive, but it's difficult because of the numbers they have," Anez said.
The state also pointed to numerous programs available to women at the prison, including 16 "advanced computer courses," a dog-training program and an "industries program" in which inmates make silk bows for a local florist, the bureau report said.
In May, Human Rights Bureau investigator Andrea Strowd found there was "reasonable cause" to believe there was illegal discrimination against women in the prison system, writing that the Corrections Department's explanation about the differences in educational, vocational and industrial opportunities between men's and women's facilities was "essentially not credible."
Slice, in an interview with The Gazette this summer, said the findings prompted excitement among the women who helped launched the complaint.
"We have a lot of women here who would just love to be able to do something productive with their time and learn a skill - that's money in the bank down the road, if not right now," she said. Slice said they would push for the same opportunities granted to men in the prison system.
The reasonable-cause finding means the complaint must be heard before a hearings examiner within 12 months if attempts at "conciliation" are not possible.
A challenge by the state has put that timeline on hold.
At a hearing before District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock in Helena on Nov. 29, Corrections Department attorneys argued that everyone except Slice should be dismissed from the complaint because Slice, who is not an attorney, did not have the right to file the complaint on anyone else's behalf.
Waterman, of Helena, argued the procedural question is moot because his firm signed on to represent the group in September. If the case were dismissed, Waterman would simply re-file the complaint on the women's behalf, returning the process to square one, he said.
"The rub is that Corrections would like this whole thing dismissed," Waterman said. "The last thing the DOC wants is another long-standing action where there's a third party looking over their shoulder and watching how they conduct their business."
Sherlock's decision is expected before the end of the year, Waterman said.
If the judge decides in favor of the complainants, the case could go before a hearings examiner sometime after June 9, the date set prior to the procedural objections.
Slice, 45, was transferred from Montana Women's Prison to federal custody on July 25, the prison's information officer Annamae Siegfried-Derrick said.
In October, Slice pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from allegations she swindled $300,000 from Butte banks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Natural Trust for Historic Preservation. The charges involve loans ostensibly taken to renovate a former church in Butte for the Butte Jazz Society in 2000 and 2001, when she was the director.
Slice pleaded guilty to lying on loan applications, making false statements to the USDA and mail fraud. Sentencing was tentatively set for Feb. 17.
Slice was convicted in 1987 of 12 felonies for swindling businesses and charities of nearly $53,000. One of those charges stemmed from money Slice pocketed after telling people she was collecting money to help the family of a Missoula girl who needed a liver transplant.
In 2004, Slice was returned to prison for violating probation on charges stemming from the 1987 convictions, according to Corrections Department records.
Her projected discharge date on the state convictions was 2015, though she is already eligible for parole, Siegfried-Derrick said.
Gazette reporter Becky Shay and The Associated Press contributed to this report.