On March 28, thirty-eight inmates from the Lake County Detention Center filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging inhumane and discriminatory prison conditions and violation of constitutional rights.
Filed in the U.S. District Court in Missoula, the suit alleges that the prison is overcrowded and deteriorating infrastructure, while inmates are deprived of basic sanitation, medical care, exercise space and sunlight.
Aloysius D. Black Crow is the lead plaintiff in the consolidated class action, while the list of defendants includes Lake County Commissioners Bill Barron, Steve Stanley and Gale Decker; Kate Stinger, Lake County Executive Administrative Assistant; Lake County Sheriff Don Bell; and Deputy Sheriff Ben Woods. The complaint alleges the conditions persist despite Lake County settling a similar lawsuit in 1995, promising to make improvements.
“Over the past few decades, the prison has only become less livable,” according to a summary of the complaint from plaintiffs’ attorneys. “Detainees often find themselves without hot water or basic toiletries, they have no access to fresh air or sunlight, they are forced to sleep on the floor, and they have to knock on doors and shout to attract the attention of the guards. In addition, mold grows on walls and mattresses, heating and ventilation systems are inadequate, and there is often standing water on the floor.
According to the lawsuit, many of the inmates suing the county are enrolled members of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes (CSKTs). Despite their tribal affiliation, according to the filing, the plaintiffs are exclusively offered Christian religious practices while being denied access to Native American religious ceremonies. The alleged actions are violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the plaintiffs’ rights to free exercise of their religion and equal protection, the filing says.
The complaint also alleges that inmates are charged for seeking medical care, which violates the rights to adequate and free health care guaranteed by the 1855 Hellgate Treaty.
“Conditions in the Lake County Jail demonstrate not only a disrespect for the constitutional rights of inmates, but also a disregard for their humanity,” said Constance Van Kley, director of litigation at Upper Seven Law, the law firm of lawyers representing the plaintiffs, in a press release. “These discriminatory and dangerous conditions are illegal and must change.”
Timothy Bechtold, who is based in Missoula, also represents inmates.
Lake County officials declined to comment on the matter. The plaintiffs are asking for a remediation plan to rectify the conditions of detention, grant the plaintiffs attorney’s fees and provide registered tribal members with medical care.