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Man dies in Montana prison amid harassment suit

Man dies in Montana prison amid harassment suit

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A 33-year-old man sentenced to life without parole in Montana State Prison and who took his complaints about sexual harassment by a corrections officer to the Montana Supreme Court has died, revealed by court documents filed this week in his case. 

Attorneys filed a motion with the state high court to dismiss Laurence Alan Stewart II's case on June 2 after learning "by way of background" that Stewart was deceased. 

Supreme Court Justices responded in a filing on June 5 by ordering the case dismissed on July 1 if an estate representative did not appear on Stewart's behalf. 

Amy Barton, a spokeswoman for the state prison told the Missoulian on Thursday Stewart died on April 30 due to an apparent hanging. Family and victims were notified as per policy, Barton said, adding the prison no longer issues press releases when an inmate dies as part of a new policy.

Stewart, of Virginia, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2013 by a Cascade County District Judge after he was convicted of trying to kill seven Montana law enforcement officers a year earlier by throwing pipe bombs at them during a 40-mile chase that ended outside Belt.

In November, the Montana Human Rights Commission found the Montana Department of Corrections and Montana State Prison owed Stewart $3,000 for discriminating against him on the basis of sex in 2017. According to hearing officer Caroline Holien's report dated Nov. 27, 2019, state prison officials admitted liability for sexual harassment discrimination before it got to the hearing stage.

The admission was a concession that led Stewart to forego additional allegations, including claims that he was retaliated against for reporting the sexual harassment, according to Holien's report. 

The report includes the following uncontested facts:

  • On Dec. 3, 2017, Corrections Officer Lucas Griswold sexually harassed Stewart, which included an "over-the-clothing pat search" with Stewart while making sexual comments. 
  • Griswold stated that he would perform pat-downs of entire blocks or units "in response to inmates calling him a racist or other insults." Pat-downs of entire units returning from the chow hall are not normally performed. When pat-downs of entire units are performed, they are not normally performed by one officer alone.
  • A sergeant at the prison and "other correctional officers were aware of past sexual and/or inappropriate behaviors by Griswold, but did not report it."
  • Stewart and at least 14 others filed informal grievances ("informals") on the incident. These informals were allegedly lost or misplaced until June 2018, when they were found in a locked office of a prison rape elimination compliance officer who had left the job. 

After Stewart had received no response to his informal grievance, he filed a formal one in January 2018, according to the Human Rights Bureau filing. The following February, the Prison Rape Elimination Act compliance officer requested an investigation with the prison's human resources department, documents state. A human resources staffer found the claims to be substantiated and on March 6, 2018, the prison suspended Griswold.

Later that month, Stewart filed another formal grievance regarding the prison's failure to refer him for a mental health evaluation as required by the the Prison Rape Elimination Act. A security technician noted Stewart had said during a previous interview that he did not need to see a mental health specialist, and an interview with a psychiatrist several months earlier made no reference to suicidal or homicidal ideation. But on April 1, 2018, Stewart filed a mental health request reporting his "patience/stability is gone … " that he had thoughts about killing his cell mates and other thoughts that were not normal, according to Human Rights Bureau documents. Additionally interviews showed Stewart suffered emotional distress as a result of Griswold's discriminatory conduct, including anger, depression, anxiety, suicidal and homicidal thoughts.

"Stewart's biggest emotions since the incident is anger and hopelessness, which is reasonable given that his life is effectively within the sole control of MSP and its staff," Holien, the Human Rights Bureau hearing officer, wrote in her November 2019 report.

Stewart had requested $30,000 for suffering sexual harassment and for the prison's failure to quickly investigate his claim. The Human Rights Commission ultimately decided he was entitled to $3,000, which accounts for the approximate six months between his informal grievance filed Dec. 4, 2017, and staff addressing his complaint in accordance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. 

The hearing officer also ordered the Montana Department of Corrections, and Montana State Prison consult with the Human Rights Bureau, which is within the Department of Labor and Industry, to ensure its policies and procedures are sufficient to identify, investigate and resolve inmate complaints of discrimination. Barton, the prison spokeswoman, was unsure whether the stipulation had been completed by Thursday and said she would have to check with legal staff. A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor and Industry said the Department of Corrections had been in contact with the Human Rights Bureau, starting in January, and met in February regarding its harassment policies and procedures. Additional information would be available next week, spokeswoman Lauren Lewis said.

In May 2019, before the hearing officer's decision, Stewart — representing himself — brought a lawsuit in Powell County District Court against the prison and corrections officers with his claims of sexual assault, sexual harassment, assault, intimidation, mistreating prisoners and violations of his constitutional rights. In March 2020, a Powell County District Court judge granted the defendants' motion to dismiss, ruling the District Court did not have jurisdiction over the case or claims that played out in the Human Rights Bureau.

On April 2, Stewart appealed the dismissal to the Montana Supreme Court. Two weeks later, a mediator was arranged. The case did not settle during a mediation session on April 28, according to the mediators report to the court. On April 30, Stewart was found dead by apparent suicide.

Barton said the investigation into Stewart's death has been turned over to the Powell County Attorney's Office, which will make a determination of whether to conduct a coroner's inquest, which determines whether a person died as the unjustified fault of law enforcement. 

Barton said the new policy to not issue press releases upon an inmate's death was a direction from the governor's office. Voicemails left for comment at the governor's office were not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.

Barton was also not immediately aware whether Griswold, the correctional officer involved in Stewart's sexual harassment case, was still employed at the state prison. 

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