The Montana Department of Corrections announced Wednesday that two inmates at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge died by suicide in late September.
Edward Bailey, 40, was found unresponsive in his cell on Sept. 20, according to a spokesperson for the department. On Sept. 28, Jeremy B. Cramer, 47, was also found unresponsive in his own cell. A prison physician declared both deceased.
The statement released by the department did not disclose the manners of death or when each death was ruled a suicide. Investigations of deaths in state custody are conducted by the Powell County coroner.
“Suicides are always difficult for everyone involved, and the department extends its condolences to the families of these individuals,” DOC Director Brian Gootkin said in the Wednesday statement.
In a statement, Disability Rights Montana indicated the news of the recent deaths is concerning.
“It is DRM’s position that suicide and self-harm is always preventable. The number of individuals who have taken their own lives within the walls of the Montana State Prison is cause for alarm, and [the] DOC Administration must urgently [work] to prevent any other preventable deaths,” said Bernie Franks-Ongoy, DRM’s executive director.
The deaths appear to be the first confirmed suicides of inmates in DOC custody this year. Shaun Duncan Morrison, 39, died in May from injuries resulting from self-harm. A coroner’s inquest later found Morrison had not intended suicide. Morrison had a history of mental illness and had been part of a lawsuit against the state for its treatment of inmates with mental illness brought by DRM and the ACLU of Montana. That case is pending.
Another inmate, Lisa Anne Nester, 50, was found unresponsive in her cell in June at Montana Women’s Prison and later died at Billings Clinic. The Daily Montanan reported that Nester’s death was attributed to asphyxiation from hanging, citing a copy of her death certificate. The case has not been declared a suicide by the state corrections department.
In total, the state has reported that 17 inmates have died this year while in custody. The state does not identify a cause of death on the public list. The department decided to begin publicly reporting deaths in custody again in July 2020 in response to reporting by the Missoulian.
Bailey was serving a 20-year sentence for aggravated assault and criminal endangerment after pleading guilty in 2008. Cramer was serving a life sentence for deliberate homicide.
In its release, a spokesperson said the department “consistently provides behavioral health support to inmates, with a full-time, dedicated behavioral health team on site at MSP.” The spokesperson did not respond by press time to further questions about whether Bailey and Cramer were receiving therapy or treatment for mental health issues before their deaths, or whether they had disclosed suicidal ideation to members of the behavioral health team.
Jailing people because of a mental health issue is illegal in Montana and every other state except New Hampshire. But an 11-year-old tribal policy allows law enforcement to put members who threaten or attempt suicide in jail or juvenile detention to prevent another attempt.
The Biden administration announced Thursday that it is nominating former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Martha Williams to become director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Williams will become the second major Montana appointee to work under U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
Montana’s districting commission wanted to present the public with a single congressional map to ponder this week. Instead, with Democrats and Republicans at loggerheads, it’s presenting two for more feedback.