A razor-wire fence surrounds a windowless concrete building that serves as one of the locked housing units at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.
Montana State Prison's Locked Housing Unit. Credit: Wes Overvold

MISSOULA — The Montana Department of Corrections has reached a settlement with human rights groups that ends a nearly 30-year-old lawsuit over prison conditions stemming from a deadly 1991 prison riot at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.

Missoula U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch on Friday signed-off on the settlement brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Montana, and Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center. The groups sued the state over what they said were numerous areas of mistreatment of inmates at the prison, including lack of medical care, training, rehabilitation programs, work programs, and failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

While a settlement reached in 1995 was found to have improved prisoners’ access to medical care, rehabilitation programs and job training, by 2005 experts monitoring the prison found it remained noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Negotiations over the suit continued for another decade.

Lynch, who was appointed to the bench in 2006, on Friday said he recalled planning to finish the lawsuit off within a year of taking his post.

The Russell Smith Federal Courthouse in Missoula. Credit: Hunter Pauli / MTFP

“But in the end it’s been a very fair result and you should all be commended,” Lynch told the attorneys for both sides.

The Montana State Prison has been updating its facilities over the years to comply with ADA regulations regarding physical disabilities. Improvements include installing handrails and adding push bars to doors, paving dirt walkways outside emergency exits, and in 2011 installing an elevator that the ACLU says allows disabled prisoners to access the library and classes on the second floor, which hadn’t been possible since the facility opened in 1979.

While barriers to equal access still exist, Montana ACLU legal director Alex Rate said he hopes the settlement will take them down.

“I’m cautiously optimistic based on MSP’s work so far getting the prison up to code,” Rate said Thursday after a visit to the prison where he met with disabled inmates.

More difficult than drilling handrails into the walls is changing prison policies on how mentally disabled inmates are treated, which Rate said will be a costly and absolutely necessary process. Rate said these inmates need treatment, not punishment, and need equal access to the treatment programs prisoners must complete to qualify for parole.

“Any ADA claim is all about levelling the playing field,” Rate said.

ACLU and ADA experts will have access to Montana State Prison for the next two years to ensure the prison is in compliance with the settlement. Rate said the settlement took so long to play out because of the years of work necessary to show the prison’s flaws, including numerous investigations and site visits by experts, the long negotiations required for policy changes, and the Montana Legislature chronic underfunding of the prison.

Interim prison Warden Jim Salmonsen was present in the courtroom Friday, and said that while the settlement was a good move in the right direction, the prison’s lack of funding makes improvements difficult. Salmonsen cited the announcement Thursday that the state hospital for ill and elderly prisoners in Lewistown will close before August, saving the state $2.7 million.

“It’s not good,” Salmonsen said of the budget, “it’s never too good.”

Salmonsen replaced Warden Michael Fletcher this January after Fletcher was fired by the Department of Corrections for undisclosed reasons less than a year after replacing Warden Leroy Kirkegard, who retired in April 2017.

Hunter Pauli is a Seattle-born, Missoula-based freelance investigative reporter and a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.You can follow Hunter on Twitter.