Montana Prison Lawsuit Reinstated, to New Judge

The Montana State Prison system must face constitutional claims by mental health advocates that its policies and practices create “horrific” treatment of severely mentally ill inmates who may be locked in solidary for years at a time or denied medications, a federal appeals court held Friday.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals also took the case away from trial Judge Sam Haddon, who initially dismissed the case by mistaking the current case for another and after being told of his mistake declined to revisit his ruling.

Disability Rights Montana Inc. sued the state director of prisons and the prison system for constitutional violation of inmate civil rights and Eighth Amendment violations by denying prisoners with serious mental illness a diagnosis and treatment and placing them in solitary confinement for week or months without mental health care.

In addition, the lawsuit alleges that prison mental health staff in numerous instances would limit a prisoner’s access to psychiatric medication, including denying inmates medications entirely.

 “DRM’s complaint plausibly alleges that the Dept. of Correction defendants were deliberately indifferent” to the substantial risk of harm and that officials were aware that the potential for harm exists, the panel wrote.

The lawsuit would cover all Montana inmates with serious symptoms of mental illness and identified nine individual prisoners. The panel says the “allegations are horrifying” including ill inmates who are untreated and subjected to extreme and lengthy solitary confinement. Three of the nine inmates named resulted in suicides.

The panel noted the Judge Haddon expressed skepticism about the relevance of facts about deceased prisoners, which the appeals court shot down. If true, the allegations “would clearly provide powerful support to DRM’s claim that Montana’s punishing treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness is constitutionally defective,” wrote Judge Ronald Gould for the majority.

Judge Haddon also questioned the meaning of “seriously mentally ill,” and whether it was too vague.

He had ordered DRM to separate its claims into separate complaints, one against the state prisons with the constitutional cruel and unusual punishment claim and a second against the state’s Dept. of Public Health, alleging the due process violations.

But during a hearing on motions to dismiss the cases, Haddon confused the Public Health due process case with the prison constitutional claim, and even after being told refused to correct or reconsider his dismissal of both suits.

Haddon, who is 82, was appointed by President George W. Bush.

Judge Gould was joined by Judges Richard Paez and visiting Judge Janis Jack of Texas.

The lawsuit was ordered reinstated and assigned to a new judge in Montana.

Case: Disability Rights Montana v. Batista, No. 15-35770

Click to access 15-35770.pdf

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