Clampdown generates lawsuit 

Prison Privileges

Montana’s prison system inmates will see major changes Feb. 1 in state policies governing the amount and variety of personal property they’re permitted. The changes, which will reduce property at some prisons and increase it at others, have prompted a class-action lawsuit filed by 89 Montana State Prison (MSP) inmates and numerous official grievances.

MSP Warden Mike Mahoney says the changes aim to standardize inmate rules at the state’s six secure facilities (MSP, Montana Women’s Prison, three regional prisons in Missoula, Great Falls and Glendive, and Shelby’s private prison) and have been brewing for nearly three years.

The changes are numerous. Personal towels, typewriters, musical instruments, hotpots and recreational equipment like baseball gloves that MSP inmates have long enjoyed in their individual cells will be declared contraband Feb. 1 and replaced by institutional equivalents inmates can check out. Inmate TVs, which some facilities banned and others permitted at a 13-inch size, will now be allowed only at a 7-inch size, but existing TVs will be grandfathered in until 2008.

Mahoney says the changes are necessary both to create equity among the prisons and to enhance safety by making it easier to track and inspect inmate property. While he defends the new policies’ importance, he recognizes they’re not popular, especially at MSP, which has had comparatively liberal property allowances in the past.

“Because their world is pretty limited to begin with—we tell them when to get up, when to eat, when to recreate—these are things that impact their worlds pretty seriously,” Mahoney says.

MSP inmate John Middlemiss, who filed the pro se class-action suit, argues the policy violates inmates’ constitutional rights, but the Department of Corrections has sought denial of such claims, saying the changes are necessary and justified.

“There’s no question these guys may think it impacts their quality of life,” says Mahoney, “but when you look at our mission, it doesn’t talk about how comfortable we can make these guys while they’re here. It’s to provide them with opportunities to make changes so they can become productive members of society.”

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