The fact that Montana Department of Corrections officials "decided to move away from" notifying the public about inmate deaths is not only bad government and seemingly diametrically opposed to the transparency espoused by the Bullock administration. It's also a disturbing indication of larger issues with corrections in the state.
Thanks to the excellent reporting of The Missoulian's Seaborn Larson, Montanans were told last week that 20 people have died in the custody of the Department of Corrections since the long-held policy of notifying the public of inmate deaths was apparently changed last fall in an informal conversation among bureaucrats.
Fifteen of those deaths have come in 2020, a tally higher than those of the previous two years combined.
This is not information Montana journalists should have to specifically ask for. This is public information that should be shared routinely.
At least two of the 2020 deaths have been classified as suicides, including Laurence Alan Stewart II, who was in the midst of negotiating a legal settlement with the state after accusing the DOC of allowing him to be sexually harassed. Negotiations between Stewart and the state on a settlement had just broken down just a couple of days prior to his now-reported suicide.
Such a cavalier decision about notifying the public of deaths of those in their custody gives us little confidence that the state will be transparent about other things — like COVID cases within the system. It also bespeaks a dangerous attitude that prisoners' lives are somehow less valuable or worthy of respect than those of other citizens.
The department last week said that the practice of sending notifications of inmate deaths was never a formal policy.
It certainly should have been.
The DOC is singularly unaccountable to the rest of government and to the public.
In the case of a prison inmate death, the state Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation would only investigate if Department of Corrections requests it, DOJ spokesman John Barnes told the Missoulian. The Justice Department has not been asked by the Corrections Department to investigate any of the deaths that have occurred since the Corrections Department decision to stop issuing public notices about inmate deaths.
We believe the decision to stop notifications is so antithetical to good government that Gov. Bullock should immediately intervene and mandate the resumption of prompt public/media notification of inmate deaths, and we call for him to do so.
We also believe hard questions should be asked of state prison administrators, and an audit of departmental written standards, practices and procedures should be undertaken.
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