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A Montana State Prison inmate waited a month for medications to treat his asthma, seizures and diabetes. He was placed in an upstairs cell for more than a week and denied a cane, despite telling staff he had torn knee ligaments and needed help walking. And one day, when he collapsed while walking, prison staff laughed at him and instructed another employee not to assist.

Those allegations are listed in a complaint to the Montana Human Rights Bureau that Jeffrey Arthur Mewes, age 57, filed in August. The complaint accuses the state, the Department of Corrections and Michael Fletcher, warden of the Montana State Prison, of discriminating against Mewes based on his age and disability status, and of retaliating against him for reporting the discrimination.

Attorney Michael Doggett of Missoula is representing Mewes. Mewes was most recently a Missoula resident, having moved there from Kalispell in June 2016 while serving parole. 

Doggett shared the complaint, the department's response and Mewes' rebuttal with Lee Newspapers. 

The bureau has until Jan. 30, 2018, to make a finding in the case.

Mewes arrived at the prison on Feb. 3 after violating parole on a DUI conviction. (Mewes has DUI convictions in Montana from 2002, 2003 and 2013, all of which are listed as fourth or subsequent offenses.) Mewes filled out a medical receiving questionnaire that day and was screened by a prison nurse the next.

Mewes told staff he required a cane or walker, since he’d been hit by a car two months earlier. Intake staff also documented multiple medical conditions, including diabetes, Hepatitis C, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

But Mewes said he wasn’t prescribed his 11 daily medications until March 3, when he met with the prison’s doctor. The department’s response to Mewes’ complaint does not dispute that, noting Mewes was prescribed his daily meds on March 3 during his initial doctor appointment. 

The DOC declined to clarify whether Mewes had waited a month for the medication, and if so, why. The department cited the pending litigation and federal and state privacy laws as reasons not to comment on the case. 

DOC spokeswoman Judy Beck did provide a brief statement about inmate accommodations. 

"Under our [Americans with Disabilities Act] policy, the department is committed to ensuring that all inmates are provided adequate medical care and reasonable accommodations for their known disabilities," the statement read. 

In April, two months after arriving at the prison, Mewes was moved from a ground-floor cell to an upper tier cell. He still hadn’t received a cane, walker or other device, despite subsequent requests, he said.

Mewes said his mobility was so limited, due to pain in his back, that he missed meals for two days and skipped showers for two weeks due to the upstairs placement and lack of accessibility in the showers. Instead he used a sink in his cell to clean up, he said.

Staff moved Mewes because the ground-floor unit was becoming crowded, the DOC said in a response it filed with the Human Rights Bureau. The department did not respond to Mewes’ allegation that he missed meals and showers due to the placement.

One day, while walking toward the stairs to get to his cell, Mewes fell, collapsing to the floor, hitting his head and breaking his glasses, according to the complaint. An officer later checked on Mewes and told him that when Mewes fell, guards and a sergeant saw the fall and told the officer not to assist. They were laughing, the officer told Mewes.

Mewes later gave a complaint form to a nurse because the officer would not accept it, he said.

Mewes also wrote that he did not know the names of any of the prison staff involved because guards wear their name tags facing inward to the shirt so they cannot be read.

The DOC responded that prison staff on duty the night in question “had no knowledge or information about Mewes falling.”

Mewes’ attorney countered that Mewes can relay only his own experience, “since he does not control whatever the Department writes down or films.”

Mewes remained in the upper tier cell for 12 days. Halfway through his time there he made an emergency visit to the doctor for “severe back pain shooting into his chest.” A week later, his back pain returned and a doctor ordered him moved to the infirmary.

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Mewes was wheeled to the infirmary on a cart, not a wheelchair.

Mewes said he was treated unfairly because he requested better accommodations, and that several guards and the warden himself “would complain to me about the attention I was receiving,” and for sending complaint forms, Mewes said.

In its response, the DOC wrote that it denies having discriminated or retaliated against Mewes. Ira Eakin, an attorney for the department, filed the response.

“Mewes has received adequate, if not excellent, health care since his arrival at MSP,” Eakin wrote.

Mewes received 19 medical appointments in seven months, the department’s response noted.

The department sought to have the complaint dismissed because it was not signed by Mewes, just by his power of attorney. It also argued the staff behavior Mewes describes does not rise to the level of discrimination, and that Mewes’ claims of retaliation were baseless.

“Even if everything Mewes says is true, he has not shown that the actions or inactions of any DOC employee were motivated by a discriminatory intent,” the department wrote.

The department suggests Mewes was a frequent complainer. Michele Steyh, the unit manager who Mewes said saw him fall one day, recalled him as a vocal inmate.

“She remembers that Mewes had been in prison before, and she said Mewes was not shy about reporting incidents, kiting for needs, particularly medical, and that Mewes was familiar with the grievance procedure,” the department wrote.

Doggett, the attorney representing Mewes, said he will appeal the decision if the bureau finds no discrimination has occurred.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.