Court revives case on treatment of mentally ill inmates
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A U.S. appeals court on Friday said a Montana judge confused two cases when he mistakenly threw out a lawsuit four years ago alleging that inmates with serious mental illnesses weren’t receiving the treatment they need.
U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon of Great Falls threw out the lawsuit in 2015 by Disability Rights Montana that claims mentally ill inmates in Montana State Prison were being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, ruling “the horrific treatment” of mentally ill prisoners claimed in the lawsuit is supported enough to justify keeping the case alive.
State corrections officials deny violating the inmates’ constitutional rights.
Prison spokeswoman Amy Barton said the 9th Circuit ruling decided only that the case could continue, not whether the allegations are true.
The Department of Corrections has “worked in good faith with stakeholders — including the advocacy groups pursuing this case — to update its housing policy for mentally ill inmates under recently passed legislation,” she said.
Haddon had mixed up two different cases filed by Disability Rights Montana when he dismissed the lawsuit, and then he declined to reconsider his decision when the mistake was pointed out, the appellate judges said.
The appeals court assigned the case to a different judge. The reassignment isn’t because the judges believe Haddon is biased against Disability Rights Montana, but to “preserve the appearance of justice,” the opinion said.
“When a district court errs in this way, especially when the court gives no plausible justification for its decision, parties and observers may justifiably doubt whether the future disposition of their matter in the continuing proceedings will be based on proper considerations of law and equity.”
Disability Rights Montana alleges that mentally ill prisoners were denied diagnosis and treatment, placed in solitary confinement for long periods, and that prison officials did not respond appropriately to suicide threats.
The organization says inmates with mental illnesses make up about 20% of the prison population.
“People with serious mental illnesses are being forced into horrific and unconstitutional conditions instead of getting the necessary treatment that the state has a duty to provide,” said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana, which is representing Disability Rights Montana. “This barbaric practice must end.”