Combined class action suit filed by Lake County Jail inmates
Lawsuit filed against Lake County Jail, governor, alleges unlivable conditions
LAKE COUNTY — More than 40 cases filed by inmates of the Lake County Jail have been combined into a single, class-action lawsuit in federal district court, alleging unlivable conditions in the Lake County Dentention Center.
County officials have denied culpability for most conditions in the jail in a response.
The combined case, Lake County Inmates vs. Lake County Jail, was filed on July 19, after individual inmates began filing single cases alleging poor conditions in the jail in late 2021.
Attorney Tim Bechtold was ordered by a federal judge to consolidate the cases, and the number of plantiffs has grown from around two dozen in March, to more than 40.
Bechtold told the Valley Journal in March that “their primary concern is conditions of confinement.”
The lawsuit lays out allegations of insect infestations, clogged heating and cooling vents that prevent proper air temperature regulation, overcrowding that leads to physical violence, lack of access to hot water for days at a time, and mold growing on ceilings, walls, floors and mattresses.
“Most inmates are required to spend 24 hours of every day in enforced idleness in small cellblocks or in segregation,” the complaint alleges. “This results in unreasonable and unnecessary psychological stress and physical deterioration for the prisoners.”
The lawsuit also alleges: “Inmates are deprived of the essentials of soap, toothpaste, and shampoo for unreasonable periods of time. Inmates are required to share razors, thereby creating a health hazard. Inmates are crowded into cells and many are required to sleep on broken bunks or on the floor in inadequate bedding.”
The inmates claim they lack access to Native American religious ceremonies, despite the fact that most inmates are Native American. Additional allegations about lack of access to exercise equipment, fresh air, medical care and dental care are also mentioned in the lawsuit.
In a response to the original lawsuit, Lake County denied most of the allegations.
“Lake County Defendants deny that there is mold growing on mattresses and aver that all mattresses are routinely cleaned between inmates,” the county’s attorney wrote in response. “Lake County Defendants aver that mildew was in the shower area, the inmates were given supplies to clean and mitigate the mildew but have refused. Lake County Defendants deny nonfunctional sanitation systems and further aver that all sanitation system blockages are caused by inmates shoving clothing, trash, towels, and other items into the toilets, which are fixed as needed.”
The county also claims inmates repeatedly clog the detention center’s air vents with toothpaste and paper products, causing staff to clean them out. The response also notes that “the detention center cannot accommodate some religious materials and ceremonies on the basis of overall detention center staff and inmate safety and security concerns.”
The Lake County Jail was previously sued in 1995 by prisoners alleging inadequate conditions. That lawsuit ended in a consent decree with the county agreeing to make changes correcting problems in the jail. Bechtold said in March that the changes agreed to in the consent decree were not implemented. County officials have long wrestled with how to adequately fund the jail in Lake County.
In 2020 county voters overwhelmingly voted against a levy proposal that would have raised $2.5 million annually over the next 20 years to expand the jail and the Lake County Courthouse.
On July 14, the Lake County Commissioners filed a lawsuit against the State of Montana, alleging the county is owed millions of dollars for providing law enforcement services on the Flathead Reservation.
According to a legislative fiscal note, in 2019, 70 percent of felony prosecutions in Lake County were of tribal members, accounting for more than $4 million in costs annually to the county.
The county commissioners have said that amount is untenable, with Commissioner Gale Decker noting that law enforcement costs have eaten up 40-60% of the county’s budget in recent years.
The county has purported that the responsibility to provide jail services for the reservation amounts to an unfunded mandate. The system was set up by federal Public Law 280 in 1953. This law allows Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal members to be prosecuted through the local county courts. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are the only Montana tribe that opted into this system when it first came available in the 1960s. Other tribes in Montana prosecute felonies through federal courts.
While the county can withdraw from the agreement, the county alleges in its suit that the State of Montana’s lack of resources to take over law enforcement on the reservation would cause chaos.
As the state readies to respond to the county’s suit, on Friday, the federal class action also is now taking aim at the state government. On Friday, July 29, a summons was issued to Governor Greg Gianforte and State Attorney General Austin Knudsen. Governor Gianforte is now listed as a defendant in the amended federal complaint filed on behalf of the prisoners.