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Growing Inmate Numbers Fuel COVID-19 Concerns In Montana's Already Crowded Jails

Inmate Populations for Select County Jails in Montana
Inmate Populations for Select County Jails in Montana

County jail populations dropped this spring as the state reacted to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Now, with cases of COVID-19 on the rise, inmate populations in several of Montana’s largest county jails are growing and cell blocks are crowded. Some advocates are calling for more action to reduce the number of people locked up during this time. But local sheriffs say they’re balancing virus risks and public safety. It’s all leaving some inmates worried about their health.

Aurora Quinn is a federal inmate at the Cascade County Detention Facility in Great Falls, Montana. We spoke over the phone via Skype.

"In this pod, there's literally women sleeping shoulder to shoulder in here. Most of the women in here are sleeping on the concrete floor on mats that are probably not even two inches thick."

Quinn is in on meth distribution charges. She lives in G Pod, where she says there aren’t enough beds and there’s almost always women sleeping on blue mats on the floor of the main room. Quinn says social distancing is impossible. She feels it’s inevitable that the novel coronavirus gets inside the jail.

Quinn is scared because she has a health condition that could make her more vulnerable to COVID-19. She’s not the only one. Montana Public Radio spoke with a half dozen women in the Cascade County jail, each shared Quinn’s concerns. Several women said they had pre-existing conditions like asthma.

"There's all kinds of medical problems in here and there's, it's like, we're not human. You know, it's like we're cattle just waiting for slaughter," Quinn says.

Jail populations across the state dipped this spring over concerns that COVID-19 could spread in close-quarter spaces like cell blocks. The Supreme Court and the Governor’s Office issued guidance urging the release of certain inmates to stave off a COVID-19 outbreak in jails and prisons. Much of that guidance remains in place.

But in recent weeks those populations are increasing in several of Montana’s most populated county jails. The increase is apparent in jails in Yellowstone and Cascade counties. The Cascade County jail where Aurora Quinn lives was over capacity by nearly 100 inmates on July 1.

Cascade County sheriff Jesse Slaughter says public safety is his priority.

"I'm in the business of risk management, which means I usually am left with a good decision and a worse decision," Slaughter says.

Slaughter’s office is responsible for running the Cascade County jail. He says the jail is overcrowded and that, even before the pandemic, the local sheriff’s office was trying to lower inmate numbers. He says a pretrial risk assessment tool that started this spring is working to reduce the number of jail inmates. He also hopes to get a work release program going.

But, in the effort to reduce jail overcrowding, he draws the line at changing his office’s policies about what types of offenders are booked into the jail. That’s an approach other counties have taken during the pandemic, including Lewis and Clark and Missoula.

"I think some of that is unconstitutional. And I would be concerned with that. And the reason I say that is, the Legislature sets the law."

"I gotta be really careful about painting outside the lines because truly, you know, you're darned if you do, you're darned if you don't," Slaughter says.

Bolte: What would you say to people who argue that, when people are overcrowded in a pod, they can't social distance in a time of COVID, and that's inhumane treatment?”

"You know, I guess my, my response to that would be this: You know, what's the alternative?"

"That same person you could release because of those reasons — those inhumane or cruel and unusual punishment due to COVID — if you release them and they harm somebody; guess who owns that? I own that."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, on behalf of Disability Rights Montana, filed a petition in April requesting an order that would drastically reduce the number of people incarcerated in all correctional facilities. SK Rossi is the advocacy and policy director at ACLU Montana.

"Anybody who is currently incarcerated in Montana at either the county or state level that is not a immediate physical threat to another person, should be released," Rossi says.

The Montana Supreme court denied the ACLU’s petition. The court wrote in its opinion that the state’s justice system was doing enough to mitigate COVID-19.

The court said “... the Executive and Judicial Branches have implemented appropriate and detailed measures for correctional facilities and jails to address the current state of emergency ...”

Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote memos in March to lower courts urging that "given the potential danger of congregate care, you work with local authorities to evaluate every pre-trial defendant in detention.”  And, specifically to the courts of limited jurisdiction to “review your jail rosters and release, without bond, as many prisoners as you are able, especially those being held for non-violent offenses.”

Nationwide, there have been outbreaks and deaths in both county jails and state prisons. According to the New York Times, “in American jails and prisons, more than 100,000 people have been infected and at least 763 inmates and correctional officers have died.” Montana hasn’t recorded a COVID-19 related death in a local jail or state prison, but inmates have tested positives at several county jails.

SK Rossi says, “We think that something needs to be done, and we think that the right thing needs to be done and that there are people with the power to do it. We will continue pushing until it gets done or until it is resolved in some other way.”

MTPR’s calls and emails to the Governor’s Office and the Justice Department were redirected to the Department of Corrections, which has responsibility only for state facilities, not county jails. The DOC can alleviate some of the overcrowding by transferring state inmates that are being held in county jails to state facilities.

The state restarted transferring those inmates in mid-May with input from the department’s Clinical Services staff and the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. After pausing due to concerns that the movement of inmates could spread the virus, the DOC reports that between mid-May and mid-July more than 100 state inmates moved out of county jails to the Montana state prison or the women’s prison since transfers started back up. This count doesn’t include additional releases to prerelease centers, assessment centers, the state youth detention facility, and more. The DOC hasn’t stopped following Gov. Bullock’s April 1 directive, but the directive does allow these transfers under certain conditions.

According to department spokesperson Carolynn Bright, new arrivals at the Montana State Prison, Women’s Prison, and Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility are offered a COVID-19 test on intake and quarantined for 14 days.

In an emailed statement, department spokesperson Carolynn Bright said that the state agency is balancing “between keeping the correctional system in motion, and ensuring the health and safety of inmates and staff at its facilities and those in Montana counties.”

Ultimately, responsibility of county jails falls to local governments. And for a time, things were different.

Nanette Gilbertson is the executive director of the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Gilbertson says fewer people were locked up when a statewide stay at home directive was in place.

"There was a lull in many things. And I think there was a very conscientious effort during that time, not to bring anyone into the detention facilities that didn't absolutely have to, have to be brought in."

Gilbertson says county sheriff's look to guidelines from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and follow other directives to mitigate COVID-19 in county jails. Gilberston says what didn’t change was violent crime levels and that public safety remains the highest priority.

"I think once we hit the expiration of some of those directives, it was time for sheriffs and law enforcement to get back to business as usual and to focus their efforts on public safety.”

Business as usual for the criminal justice system includes overcrowding in county jails. For Aurora Quinn, at the Cascade County jail, that means three people in a cell built for two.

“Even if there was no pandemic it would be like jaw-dropping-crowded in here,” Quinn says.
Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Charles Bolte