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38 inmates sue over Lake County jail conditions

Federal lawsuit claims "inhumane" conditions
Lake County Jail Inside
Lake County jail lawsuit
Posted at 10:25 AM, Apr 13, 2022

POLSON - A federal lawsuit has been filed on behalf of 38 inmates who say conditions at the Lake County jail are inhumane.

Upper Seven Law Litigation Director Constance Van Kley notes the latest allegations are not a new development, “the situation has been ongoing for close to 30 years.”

A nearly identical case was filed in federal court back in 1995.

"That case was resolved through a consent decree, so Lake County said ‘Yeah, this is a problem, we’re going to fix it’,” Van Kley said.

But new court documents depict the same — if not worse conditions.

“The ventilation system is essentially not functional, the heat generally doesn’t work, water doesn’t drain from the shower it seeps through into the cells,” Van Kley told MTN News. “There’s so much overcrowding, inmates are forced to sleep on the floor.

You don’t need inmates or documents to know that the jail — which is located in the basement of the Lake County Courthouse — lacks sunlight and fresh air. While some inmates only deal with these conditions during a night in jail, others have become accustomed to the situation.

"The longest-serving inmate currently in the Lake County Jail has been there for a year,” Van Kley said.

The inmates’ allegations go beyond the physical state of the Lake County jail.

Unlike other Montana Indian reservations, major crimes committed on the Flathead Reservation are in the hands of Lake County, and that duty costs the county about $4 million a year.

“As a result of that, a majority of the inmates in the Lake County jail are Native, and even though that’s the case, there’s no opportunity for native inmates in the Lake County jail to practice Native American religious ceremonies,” Van Kley noted.

It’s a unique agreement, and one that Lake County officials say should be funded by the state.

In fact, the county billed the governor in February for the costs going forward, saying that if the state doesn’t pay, the Lake County is ready to go to court.

We contacted Lake County Sheriff Don Bell for a response to the inmate lawsuit and he directed us to the Montana Association of Counties.

But following multiple calls and emails to them, MTN News has not received a response.

Lake County hands Montana $4M-a-year bill – for law enforcement

We don’t know how the conditions will be addressed at this time.

But the state of Montana is clear in its jail standards, with a 72-page document that details inmate bedding, access to natural light, and even the expectation of hot water.

“Big picture, what you’re looking at is a place that is clean, a place where the air is healthy, and a place where there is some amount of personal space and privacy,” Van Kley explained.

"Jail is not a fun place to be under the best of circumstances, but it needs to be a humane place to be, and it simply is not in Lake County,” Van Kley concluded.