Prison: Fighting for equal play 

The Missoula County Detention Center last month responded to a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that alleges the jail is unlawfully discriminating by keeping female and juvenile prisoners indoors at all times, while adult men have access to an outdoor yard.

“We just simply disagree whether our facility matches the appropriate standards,” says Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen, who oversees the jail.

The ACLU argues in its September lawsuit, Chief Goes Out et al v. Missoula County, that the jail relegates female and juvenile prisoners to an indoor gym and, in doing so, denies them “fresh air” and “direct sunlight.” That practice, the ACLU says, causes “increased anxiety, depression, panic attacks, sleep problems, skin problems, loss of hair and vitamin D deficiencies.”

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The county acknowledges in federal court documents that female and juvenile prisoners aren’t allowed outside. However, attorneys for the county deny violating established legal protections. Ibsen notes, meanwhile, that the indoor gyms available to female and juvenile inmates have multiple “great big windows” that open to provide light and air.

The ACLU says in its court filings that “many feasible options exist” to create an outdoor space for female and juvenile inmates, like hanging a canvass curtain in an outdoor exercise yard to separate the sexes.

Yet Ibsen says that federal and state regulations, along with budget and staffing constraints, could make accommodating the ACLU’s demands difficult. “I don’t think it’s quite as easy as one would wish that it is,” he says.

Missoula attorney Greg Munro, who’s working with the ACLU on the case, acknowledges that providing parity could cost some money. But making the changes now would be cheaper than fighting about the issue during a trial. Montana’s U.S. District Court is slated to begin case proceedings in January. In the meantime, the county is evaluating if there’s a feasible remedy at hand, Ibsen says. “We’re exploring possible options and the costs of options.”

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