By Sukyun Chung
Solitary confinement. Denial of medication. Starvation.
This is the reality of Montana prisons.
“Montana definitely isn’t helping prisoners with mental health issues by punishing them for behavior they cannot control,” said Appalachian State junior Andrew Sung.
After a 16-month investigation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and Disability Rights Montana have reported a multitude of constitutional violations of the mentally ill at Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs and Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.
The grievances include punishing bad conduct with solitary confinement, withholding medication from those with mental illnesses and depriving inmates of food and clothing.
Sanctuary House Program Director Anne Carter, who works closely with mentally ill residents of Greensboro, sees a huge problem with the situation.
“Montana’s treatment of mentally ill inmates is only going to make their conditions worse, prompting even more undesirable behavior,” said Carter. “Then they’re going to get punished again, restarting the vicious cycle.”
This is not the first time Montana prisons have been accused of mistreatment of the mentally ill.
In 2003, the Montana Supreme court ruled that Montana State Prison’s treatment of Mark Edward Walker, a bipolar prisoner, violated the constitutional rights possessed by Walker.
“If the particular conditions of confinement cause serious mental illness to be greatly exacerbated or if it deprives inmates of their sanity, then prison officials have deprived inmates of the basic necessity for human existence and have crossed the line into torture,” said the court in its written statement.
“It is frightening to think that this mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners might have been occurring for over a decade,” said marketing manager of an unnamed local business Daniel Parham. “I myself was diagnosed with delusional disorder about twenty years ago, and being alone scared me.”
“I don’t know what I would have done if I weren’t able to contact my friends, or any human for that matter,” said Parham.
The ACLU has stated that they would rather work with Montana State Prison to improve conditions for mentally ill prisoners than take legal action.
“I would love to see training programs that would help the prison employees understand and deal with the mentally ill,” said Carter. “It would definitely be a step in the right direction.”
Parham would also like to see more aid given to the prisoners.
“Therapy was absolutely instrumental in helping me cope with my illness,” said Parham. “I would imagine life to be very difficult for anyone with mental health issues without treatment.”
However, Guilford College first-year Elizabeth Backman does not see change happening any time soon.
“It is very difficult to help (mentally ill inmates) when prisons do not care for the wellbeing of any of its prisoners,” said Backman
Montana Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista stated that the department has taken multiple steps to improve the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, and has already received accreditation from the National Commission in Correctional Health Care.
But Guilford sophomore Kyndall Kelly thinks a single accreditation will not make a difference.
“Prisons don’t serve to rehabilitate,” said Kelly. “They only incapacitate criminals and release them after their sentence. Then they go back to prison after a little while.”
“It’s a cruel cycle,” said Kelly.