Montana State Prison reported Nov. 6 that Robert Gonzalez, 70, died Oct. 24 of COVID and that “underlying health conditions contributed to his death.” MSP reported another prisoner Jeffory Alan Lafield died of COVID the same day. (tinyurl.com/y4ay7e5f) According to NBC Montana, this prisoner, also in his 70s, had underlying conditions. (Nov. 2)

In October, Montana families turned out in Missoula to support incarcerated people. PHOTO: Sara Diggins

Age, in itself, is an underlying condition. At 17.6%, Montana ranks No. 1 in U.S. states for its percentage of older (55+) prisoners. (tinyurl.com/y52wjkph) Additionally, according to 2015 Bureau of Justice statistics, 32% of people in prisons and 40% in local and county jails are disabled, making them more susceptible to COVID. (tinyurl.com/yydu9df7)

In April, Disability Rights Montana and ACLU sought the release of all prisoners with disabilities, older people and those with underlying health conditions. The state’s Supreme Court unanimously denied the claim. (tinyurl.com/y4yj7kt8) 

COVID-19 deaths and infections are increasing in Montana prisons. Of some 3,600 prisoners that the Montana Department of Corrections listed in the state system at the end of 2019, percentages of infections have been reported variously, from 12% of the population at MSP to 43% at privately run CoreCivic’s Crossroads in Shelby (tinyurl.com/yyh2bwur).  Numbers are also rising in the women’s prison in Billings; Indigenous women make up a disproportionate 34% of the state’s female prison population. (tinyurl.com/y94mkgdn)  The numbers issued by state reports may also hide COVID deaths inside overall death statistics.

The state reports no racial/ethnic statistics for COVID infections and deaths among incarcerated people. While Indigenous people comprise 6% of the state’s population, overall they make up 22% of those in prisons and 26% of jail populations. (tinyurl.com/y94mkgdn) While the state’s Black population is 1%, 3% of prisoners are Black and are incarcerated at 5.7 times the rate of whites. The Latinx population is 3% and makes up 5% of prisoners. (prisonpolicy.org/profiles)  

The MSP warden has said that unless people in the prison show COVID symptoms, none of the 1,400 inside are tested. No PPE is distributed. No social distancing protocols are in place. All prisoners are locked down 23.5 hours per day. All are assumed positive for the coronavirus.

COVID among guards and staff in all Montana prisons and jails is rampant.  (tinyurl.com/y3lwtgns) National Guard military police and battlefield medical units — some veterans of U.S. wars on Iraq and Afghanistan — have been deployed to 17 prisons and jails across the state, ostensibly to assist prison staff with distribution of meals and mail, laundry and inmate counts. (tinyurl.com/yxnz3g7l)

But the pandemic death threat and repressive prison conditions raise the possibility that military forces have been brought in to put down any possible uprising by incarcerated people.

Johnnie Lewis

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Johnnie Lewis

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