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Lake County grapples with overpopulated jail, lawsuits

by HAYDEN BLACKFORD
Daily Inter Lake | January 12, 2023 12:00 AM

A class action lawsuit filed in 2021 alleging multiple constitutional violations by the Lake County Jail was consolidated in October by Judge Donald Molloy. Since then, Lake County has announced its intention to withdraw from Public Law 280 – an agreement that gives the state criminal jurisdiction over Native Americans on reservations – in part, due to the burden of maintaining the detention center.

Lake County has argued that there was a failure to exhaust administrative remedies by inmates, but in Judge Molloy’s Opinion and Order he notes that in response the plaintiffs argue that if one plaintiff has exhausted all of their administrative remedies then the others will be considered to have done so as well.

The lawsuit has been limited to include only inmates held at Lake County Jail since the initial filing, by an inmate named Blackcrow, was recorded in September 2021. The suit is scheduled for a bench trial in 2024, according to Sarah Nagy, courtroom deputy for the District Court of Montana.

“Each inmate may have a slightly different concern on a different day, but they are all subject to living in the same conditions and suffering the same harms,” Molloy wrote in his opinion.

In 1995 the inmates at Lake County Jail won a lawsuit against the county that stated the jail was violating the due process of law, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and withheld the free exercise of religion. This led to a consent decree being ordered in 1996 which demanded the jail follow proper procedures.

Now, a very similar class action suit has been brought against the jail. Five inmates filed in September 2021 against Lake County and since then the number of plaintiffs has continued to grow.

One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers,Constance Van Kley said that about 50 people have filed in the class action suit since it began.

“They continued to be filed. The first was in September 2021,” Van Kley said. “They continue to be filed even now, although more slowly.”

After these lawsuits were filed the judge appointed counsel, and consolidated all suits into one case, Van Kley said of Molly’s order and opinion.

“We have a motion for class certification that allows us to focus on the experiences of named plaintiffs, so you take a cross section of the people who have been at the Lake County jail and everybody who has been combined at the Lake County jail from September 2021 or who will be confined during the tenancy of the lawsuit is a class member,” Van Kley said.

The suit did try to bring in Governor Gianforte and the State of Montana, but that was not successful, she said.

Individual plaintiffs have brought claims against the county seeking money damages, but the class action lawsuit itself does not seek damages, she said. The plaintiffs in the class action suit are seeking a change to the alleged unconstitutional conditions of confinement at the Lake County Jail, Van Kley said.

“The state has not acted to provide money, or oversight, to make sure that the jail is an adequate place to house tribal members who are subject to Lake County's Jurisdiction,” Van Kley said.

She estimates that 50% of the jail’s population are Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal (CSKT) members. She added that another 20-30% of the total class may be descendants of members or are members of other tribes, although the population changes overtime.

“The core allegations have to do with both the physical conditions and Lake County’s policies and procedures,” Van Kley said.

The Lake County jail holds people destined for the State Prison in Deer Lodge, depending on the conviction and length of time it may hold people after sentencing, as well as those awaiting arraignment or trial, Van Kley said.

Although some are temporarily housed at the jail, other individuals have been there for an extended period of time. The longest amount of time a current individual has been there is significant, she said, adding that the inmate was booked into the jail on April 21 of 2021.

“It is a really long time especially when you don't go outside once during that time, you don't have access to exercise, you're living on top of other people and your'e breathing mold. Those are some of those core allegations of the lawsuit,” Van Kley said.

The physical condition of the jail has deteriorated, and is “unfit for human habitation,” she said. Van Kley does not think there’s much dispute that the jail is a problem.

“We have heard of stories of inmates who are sleeping on floors, and the sewers back up, there are discarded feminine hygiene products and feces on the floor where they are forced to sleep,” Van Kley said, alleging inmates then have to clean up other people’s waste.

Because the recreation facility is used to house people, individuals are not able to use the recreation facilities, and it can be the same case with the visitation room, causing incarcerated persons to not be able to visit with their families or legal counsel, she alleged.

Additionally, she alleged inmates are unable to get the attention of guards because the intercom system is faulty, and the overcrowding has caused people to be housed in what could be considered solitary confinement despite there being no need for reprimand–there just isn’t space for inmates.

“Inmates who want to practice Native American religious practices and ceremonies do not have the opportunity to do it. No pipe ceremonies, no smudging,” Van Kley said.

The suit claims the only religious option available to inmates is a non-denominational christian pastor, and that inmates have been forced to listen to christian ceremonies.

“It's so easy to not be aware of the experiences of people who are incarcerated, and it’s not like willful ignorance, but we are not aware of the experiences of people who are incarcerated. Unless you come from a culture where that is a common occurrence, and those cultures certainly exist, but there is a lot less political-pull than upper-class or middle-class,” she said.

On Dec. 12, 2022 the Lake County Commissioners held a meeting where they announced their intention to withdraw from Public Law 280.

County Commissioner Bill Barron said the law is costing Lake County $4 million a year.

The county’s attorney Lance Jasper, who was helping with the withdrawal, noted in the meeting that because of factors like the high cost Lake County bears due to Public Law 280 the county struggles to maintain the jail.

“The county is now facing lawsuits over the condition of the jail, and it’s going to get much worse,” Jasper said.

Later on in the meeting, Lake County Sheriff Donald Bell asked how many inmates were in the jail, to which his commander answered: 57.

“We really should have 46, we actually have people sleeping in the Rec room,” Bell said. “Sometimes a judge sends them down, and we have to take them,” Bell said. “If someone does a violent crime we’re taking them.”

Bell said it costs Lake County $114 a day to house inmates.

Commissioner Barron said about a quarter of the people in the jail are done with being sentenced, and are waiting for the State of Montana to transport them to the state jail. He estimated the state pays $69 a day to house prisoners.

“There’s a lot of hidden costs that the public doesn’t typically see. We spend 12-15 million dollars a year on medications in the detention center. We spend, every couple months, maybe five-to-six thousand (dollars) for ambulance transports to the hospital. Mental health evaluations, we pay for those,” County Commissioner Gale Decker Said. “It goes beyond feeding them three times a day, and providing the basic necessities.”

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