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Rights group asks justices to release inmates over COVID-19

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

HELENA — Disability Rights Montana is asking the state Supreme Court to order the release of some prison and jail inmates to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among inmates and staff.

The ACLU of Montana filed the emergency petition Wednesday on behalf of the rights group and asked for a hearing or for the court to appoint a special master to oversee a reduction of the number of people in custody during the ongoing pandemic.

“With a virus this contagious and this lethal, the state has an obligation to act immediately,” Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana, said in a statement. “Without swift action, the ripple effect of an outbreak in correctional facilities will endanger everyone, hitting people with disabilities especially hard. “

Inmates in overcrowded facilities are unable to exercise social distancing, which is one of the key ways to prevent the spread of the virus, the petition states.

Subjecting non-dangerous prisoners with disabilities to an outbreak of COVID-19 amounts to deliberate indifference to their health and safety and cruel and unusual punishment, the petition states. It names state, county and city courts, the Department of Corrections and the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole as respondents.

On March 23, Chief Justice Mike McGrath asked city and county courts to consider releasing as many people from jail as possible to avoid the spread of the virus. The petition argues that only some counties are doing so. Attorneys for those in custody must petition the courts for release.

Annette Carter, the parole chair of the Montana Boards of Pardons and Parole, said last week the board was working with the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections to identify for release inmates with non-violent criminal histories who are considered at low risk to re-offend, have health risks and are eligible for parole.

“The Board will not work outside of our statutory authority for release outside the existing legal framework of clemency and parole,” she wrote in a March 27 email. Carter and the Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the petition.

The ACLU of Montana says it and other organizations had written to Gov. Steve Bullock, the Department of Corrections and others asking them to reduce the population of incarcerated individuals, but the efforts were inadequate.

“This is a dire emergency,” said Justin Stalpes, attorney at Beck, Amsden and Stalpes. “The response cannot be patchwork – the only thing that will stop, or at least slow, the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in correctional facilities and communities is a swift and uniform state-wide response.”

Disability Rights Montana is also asking that courts limit the number of new people they order into custody.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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