Inmate laborers in B Pod relax on Thursday, November 29, 2018, at the Gallatin County Detention Center. Credit: Rachel Leathe / reprint requires permission of Bozeman Daily Chronicle

BOZEMAN — Despite early measures to protect inmates from contracting the novel coronavirus, the Gallatin County Detention Center confirmed a case of COVID-19 this week. It was initially reported by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox in a notice to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 7, correcting his previous day’s response to a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Montana.

Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said in a telephone interview Tuesday that although the man was asymptomatic, within hours of his intake he was placed in one of the jail’s two negative-pressure cells designed to prevent air and infectious particles from leaving the room. Staff learned during the intake screening process that he’d been exposed to COVID-19 before being arrested. Jailers, coordinating with the courts and county health department, released the inmate to be quarantined sometime after his test returned positive on Saturday. Citing confidentiality concerns, Gootkin did not disclose the man’s name, age or arrest details.

In an interview last week, Detention Center Commander Jim Anderson said he and his staff began instituting protective measures in early March, well before Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statewide shelter-in-place directive. The jail has been housing newly arrested inmates in a separate pod, screening inmates and staff on a regular basis, and coordinating with the county attorney and judges to release those who are not a threat to public safety. The jail typically houses an inmate population of about 170. Ninety-one people were in detention on Tuesday afternoon.

“We are on it,” Anderson said last week by phone. “We are committed to public safety, and running a jail is part of that.”

On Monday, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox filed a brief in the Montana Supreme Court on behalf of the state’s Department of Corrections, Board of Pardons and Parole and several counties urging the court to deny the emergency petition brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana on behalf of Disability Rights Montana. The lawsuit asked the court to mitigate the harm the COVID-19 pandemic could inflict on incarcerated people with disabilities by reducing the number of people in correctional facilities throughout the state.

Fox asked the justices to deny the petition.

In his response, Fox described DRM’s proposal as “an astounding solution: the immediate and indiscriminate release” of incarcerated people “regardless of the danger some may pose to victims, witnesses, or the public” in addition to releasing all pretrial detainees “regardless of charged offense.” He called DRM’s allegations manufactured and “little more than suspicion that government cannot do the right thing without court supervision.”

Fox said the DOC has taken appropriate steps to protect prisoners.

“Among other things, DOC has followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, limited visitation, and implemented screening processes and social distancing measures,” his response states. The state has also followed Gov. Steve Bullock’s orders for mandatory quarantine for all new transfers — “a measure exceeding CDC guidance,” he noted. 

Notably, “no [DOC] inmate has tested positive,” he added. 

Even prior to Bullock’s directive, Fox wrote, the DOC referred to the parole board 319 parole-eligible inmates convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses and within two years of release, of which the board has preliminarily reviewed 103, requested parole plans for 37, and released two, Fox said. Most of those cases lack an adequate parole plan which would ensure released prisoners have housing, supervision and medical support. “Releasing inmates into homelessness or crowded shelters will not mitigate their risk of contracting COVID-19,” Fox wrote.

The brief also states that the DOC is looking to recent retirees for staffing contingencies and has directed Montana Correctional Enterprises — a prisoner workplace — to make masks, face guards, gowns and sanitizer.

Several district and lower courts have also filed individual responses to the lawsuit.

Cascade County was specifically cited in the lawsuit as refusing to release any inmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In her response filed April 3, Cascade County District Judge Elizabeth A. Best acknowledged the inherent dangers of detention during the pandemic, but also urged the judges to deny the watchdog group’s petition. Best also noted that many of the county’s inmates are “addicts and/or have mental health problems which, untreated, make them a community safety risk.” 

While acknowledging the risks inmates face, Fergus County Justice of the Peace Kelly E. Mantooth also asked the court to deny DRM’s petition, writing, “Justice is to continue even in adversarial conditions such as natural disasters and disease. If fair and equal justice is not dispensed, chaos will ensue.” 

Jodi Hausen

Jodi Hausen is a Bozeman-based freelance writer and photographer whose award-winning work has appeared in national and regional publications. She is currently working on several book projects, including one about people with so-called disabilities. Her website is PotentPortrayals.com.