Prison rights case nears end in Polsonnears end in Polson 

It appears as though a four-year-old legal dispute between the Lake County Jail and the American Civil Liberties Union will soon be settled without a trial. Attorneys from both sides met in Polson last week to discuss the terms of a settlement, and Deputy County Attorney Bob Long is now in the process of drafting an amicable agreement.

“Both parties are optimistic,” says Stephen Pevar, national staff counsel for the ACLU office in Denver. “I see no reason for there not to be a settlement.”

The suit originated back in June 1995, when Pevar—along with two attorneys from the Connor, Beers and Alterowitz firm in Missoula—filed suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of several jail inmates, alleging that jail facilities were not up to code and that inmates were being denied basic human and civil rights.

Two months earlier, in April 1995, a short-term inmate was beaten to death by fellow inmate Rodney Sattler, a convicted murderer who was awaiting trial on another assault charge from earlier that year. Nonetheless, Pevar says that the incident was not the main reason for the suit. “It played a very small role,” he says. “The suit was based on numerous complaints from various inmates over several months time.”

In October 1996, Pevar explains, the two parties submitted a consent decree to the court, wherein Lake County acknowledged some deficiencies in its jail and agreed to fix them. The decree ordered the county to increase staffing at the jail and to make improvements in lighting, sanitation and fire safety, among other areas. One year later, the ACLU filed a contempt action, claiming that the county had failed to make those improvements. Pevar says the county admitted its non-compliance and a second consent decree was issued shortly afterwards. That was followed in January of this year by another contempt action, claiming the county was still not in compliance.

The situation finally changed in recent months when the county began to make some headway on its list of facilities and staffing improvements. Pevar says he’s especially pleased to see that the Sheriff Department’s latest budget includes substantial increases for these ongoing projects. “I’m satisfied and very pleased,” he says. “The sheriff and administration are doing an excellent job.”

Long similarly credits new sheriff Bill Barron, who assumed his post in January, and the County Commissioners for seeing the improvements through. “The ACLU was a catalyst for a success story here,” Long says. “But Bill Barron made it happen.”

Pevar says both sides hope to have the agreement finalized within a few weeks.

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