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"It’s Like Sardines:" Advocates Call For Health Protections For Inmates

A woman holds a black sign that says "Stop the inhumanity" and a man holds a large white sheet that says "Department of Corruption #Letthemcomehome".
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Ashley Moon and Clemente Arciga rally at the governor's residence on Sept. 2, 2020 to demand Gov. Steve Bullock institute additional coronavirus-related protections for correctional inmates.

Advocates for Montana inmates say their fears of COVID-19 outbreaks within correctional facilities are coming true. They’re demanding state officials take bigger steps to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading further.

Signs in hand, organizers stood outside the governor’s residence in Helena on Wednesday afternoon denouncing what they call inaction on behalf of the incarcerated.

In April, Gov. Steve Bullock asked the Board of Pardons and Parole to consider releasing vulnerable inmates who don’t pose a safety risk early to reduce the chance of COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities, but advocates said it wasn’t enough.

Now, LetThemComeHome organizer and ACLU of Montana policy associate Zuri Moreno says Montana has hit a breaking point. State officials halted the transfer of inmates from three county jails last week after more than 90 inmates and staff tested positive for COVID-19.

"We’ve been talking about it in a what-if scenario, like what if COVID gets into a county jail, and we’re no longer in that scenario. It’s here, and we need to discuss it and take action,” Moreno said.

Signs line the Montana capitol lawn that say "Covid + prison = death"
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
#LetThemComeHome advocates rally at the Montana State Capitol on Sept. 2, 2020 to urge state officials to release vulnerable inmates in light of recent COVID-19 outbreaks at county jails.

In late August, the Department of Corrections also reported a positive case at Montana Women’s Prison and roughly two dozen positive cases at other third-party contracted centers.

Advocates want the state to provide inmates more personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. Organizers want the Department of Corrections to immediately reduce inmate populations by releasing those who are immunocompromised, over 60 years old or eligible for parole within the next year.

The Montana Supreme Court declined a similar petition in April.

Organizers also set up signs outside the Montana State Capitol on Wednesday and live streamed their requests on social media.

Though organizer Laurie Little Dog acknowledged the need to preserve public safety, she says counties should alleviate jail overcrowding by ending pre-trial confinement for nonviolent charges like petty theft and marijuana possession.

“I don’t think that’s justifying you being thrown into a jail situation that’s COVID-positive," Little Dog said.

Clemente Arciga works with former inmates transitioning back into society. He says prisoners are struggling with cramped facilities and coronavirus-related restrictions on movement. Inmates have reported that it’s impossible to socially distance in spaces designed for fewer people.

"It’s like sardines, just thrown in there together. Nowhere to move, nowhere to go. People in prison are still humans, you know," Arciga said.

Asked for comment, Bullock’s office referred to his April directive. A Department of Corrections spokesperson referred to a Tuesday announcement that the department will spend $1 million in coronavirus relief funds on equipment to mitigate health risks in state-owned and contracted facilities.