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How a Montana Prison Is Reforming Its Treatment of People With Disabilities

Montana State Prison
Montana State Prison
Eric Balaban,
Former Senior Staff Counsel,
National Prison Project, ACLU
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June 20, 2018

Our criminal justice system has long struggled to accommodate persons with disabilities. So when a state prison reforms how it treats incarcerated people with disabilities, those reforms can have an immediate and vital effect. As a result of a groundbreaking settlement approved yesterday by Judge Jeremiah Lynch in our case, Langford v. Bullock, just such a set of reforms is now underway at the Montana State Prison.

While life at Montana State Prison is certainly difficult for all prisoners, it is especially hard on those who are disabled. Deaf prisoners have been punished for failing to respond to orders to stand for count issued through an intercom they could not hear. Men with mobility impairments, many of whom are elderly due to the long sentences handed down in the state, were denied access to vocational and educational programs the prison offered on the second floor of one of its buildings and in areas that were otherwise inaccessible.

Prisoners with mental disabilities have been punished for behavior that is the product of their disability, including instances where they have cut or otherwise harmed themselves. Too often prisoners with mental disabilities are placed in solitary confinement cells after sham disciplinary hearings that they were unable to understand or participate in due to their illnesses.

This is discrimination, pure and simple. It is also illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal statute that bars disability-based discrimination and punishment and prohibits prisons and jails from denying disabled prisoners access to programs, services, and activities available to other prisoners.

The sweeping settlement agreement, when fully implemented, will turn the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act into reality at Montana State Prison. The settlement requires prison officials to institute a reliable system to track prisoners with disabilities and accommodate them so they have equal access to all programs and services offered at the prison. It requires the creation of a viable grievance process for disability-related complaints, which will be handled by a full-time ADA coordinator responsible for overseeing an ADA compliance program.

The disciplinary process will be overhauled to bar punishment of prisoners for behavior that is the result of their disability. Hearings, classes, and other programs will be modified so those with cognitive disabilities will be able to meaningfully participate, which increases their chances for early release and parole. The building where classes are held on the second floor is now equipped with an elevator. Ramps and walkways have been built and repaired, and will be maintained, so that the entire facility is accessible to those with mobility impairments.

These changes will make an enormous difference in the day-to-day lives of disabled prisoners. Rather than being isolated in their cells, these men can now complete the programs and classes they were court-ordered to finish before they can be considered for parole. Their vocational training will not only increase their chance to earn freedom, but it will also help them to successfully transition back into society once they complete their prison terms.

What is happening at Montana State Prison can and must be replicated in prisons and jails across the country. The abuse and neglect that prisoners with disabilities face isn’t confined to Montana. Roughly 32 percent of prisoners and 40 percent of jail detainees self-report at least one disability. Individuals with serious mental disabilities continue to be jailed more often, and for far longer, than others. Incarcerated men and women with disabilities face not only the threat of physical abuse, but of being isolated and denied access to basic services and programs which they could use to prepare for reentry and speed their release.

It took a lawsuit to secure basic accommodations for the disabled men at Montana State Prison. The ADA is a potent weapon in the fight for reform, one that must be wielded vigorously against other corrections facilities across the nation.

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