Bullock issues directive suspending transfers of inmates to DOC custody shortly after Cascade County sought transfer of 24 inmates

Governor Steve Bullock today issued a directive implementing measures at correctional facilities in Montana to protect inmates and staff and curtail the spread of COVID-19.

“Today’s steps follow the best practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in places exceed them,” Bullock said in a release. “The aim is to ensure that offender populations in Montana and corrections staff are taking necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

March 20 COVID-19 updates: Library offering curbside pickup; Malmstrom AFB raises health protection level; Cascade County declares emergency; county jail still accepting offenders; Bullock orders closures of dine-in food and beverage businesses; Showdown closing; GFPS food drive today at Bison Ford; Great Falls Rescue Mission adjusting operations

The directive suspends new transfers into Department of Corrections custody, except where authorized by the director. Any new transfers will need to be quarantined for 14 days. The directive applies to all DOC facilities and contract facilities in Montana.

The directive was released to media at 1:30 p.m. April 1.

Just this morning, Cascade County was attempting to move 24 inmates at the Cascade County Adult Detention Center who have been convicted and sentenced to prison into DOC custody.

County Attorney Josh Racki sent motions to the court by email already asking the court to grant orders transferring 24 inmates to DOC custody.

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The motions will be filed officially with the Clerk of Court this afternoon, Racki said.

The motions state that the defendants are unable to start any DOC programs “or otherwise receive rehabilitative services,’ while in the county facility, where the state is also not covering the cost of housing those inmates, according to Sheriff Jesse Slaughter.

“This is especially disconcerting given that there is a public health crisis at the moment. There is currently no health issues at the CCDC. Should a health issue arise, the CCDC administration will need as much room as possible to conduct separation and quarantine operations. Removing State Department of Corrections inmates will assist in preparing for that possibly,” according to Racki’s motion.

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Should district court judges issue orders to transfer the inmates to DOC custody, the order requires DOC to pick up the inmates within seven days or on the eighth day, the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office will transport the inmates to DOC facilities and DOC will take custody at that time.

Racki said the county has taken similar action to move other inmates that have been sentenced to state prisons but were waiting on DOC transport.

Racki said he didn’t know as of Wednesday afternoon how the governor’s directive would impact these motions requesting transport.

Cascade County is currently in a legal dispute with DOC over costs associated with housing state prisoners.

Also on April 1, the ACLU of Montana and Disability Rights Montana filed an emergency petition asking the Montana Supreme Court to take immediate action to benefit prisoners with disabilities by reducing the number of people who are now in or who will enter Montana’s jails and prisons. .

The ACLU of Montana said on April 1 that the governor’s directive does not provide for the expedited release of people with disabilities and other vulnerable populations; doesn’t address people in county jails; or any fines or fees.

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According to the ACLU statement, “all  inter- and intrastate transfers should be completely suspended and not discretionary. With corrections officers already testing positive in Yellowstone County, this is a common sense measure to suppress the spread of the virus throughout the criminal justice system.”

The 2017 Legislature’s Justice Reinvestment package of laws, many nonviolent offenders supervised by DOC are already serving out their sentences in a community setting, according to the governor’s office.

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Law enforcement officials in Great Falls and Cascade County, along with others statewide, have been saying publicly those laws are causing greater problems for public safety.

The governor’s directive also includes several measures to be implemented by the DOC including screening anyone who arrives at a facility and restricting all in-person visitation. Inmates will have access to one free video visit and one free phone call each week and the department will continue facilitating unmonitored calls for inmates to communicate with attorneys as necessary. Nothing in the directive changes the rights of victims to be notified of and participate in any release decisions through the existing process, according to the governor’s office.

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The Board of Pardons and Parole will also consider early release for older inmates, inmates who have medical conditions that make them high risk, pregnant inmates, and inmates nearing their release date—but only where the Board determines that release does not pose a public safety risk and that inmates can adequately receive medical care and meet supervision requirements in the community.

Under the directive, local detention centers are urged to adopt appropriate screening and operational protocol to prevent the introduction or spread of COVID-19 within their facilities.

Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said he implemented those changes weeks ago and already suspended visitation.

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Bullock’s order directs DOC to implement testing and isolation protocols if inmates display symptoms of COVID-19; as well as follow social distancing measures when possible, provide appropriate personal protective equipment to staff as recommended by the CDC, conduct necessary disinfecting of facilities, and ensure access to personal hygiene products.

Under the directive, DOC will reduce in-person contact for the population under community supervision, and conduct routine contact via phone or other means when possible. Pre-sentence investigation interviews can be conducted over the phone and DOC is authorized to purchase equipment to promote remote supervision.

“It is imperative for public safety that those re-entering communities from facilities obtain appropriate, adequate housing during this time where supportive social services are limited. Statutory restrictions on rental voucher funds are suspended to allow additional discretion for funds to be utilized for any housing-related expense to ensure adequate re-entry housing,” according to the governor’s office.

The full directive is here.