Disability Rights Montana is asking the state Supreme Court to order the release of some prison and jail inmates to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The ACLU of Montana filed the emergency petition Tuesday on behalf of the rights group and asked for a hearing or for the court to appoint a special master to oversee a reduction of the number of people in custody during the ongoing pandemic.
"With a virus this contagious and this lethal, the state has an obligation to act immediately," Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana, said in a statement. "Without swift action, the ripple effect of an outbreak in correctional facilities will endanger everyone, hitting people with disabilities especially hard. Reducing the number of people in prisons and jails is consistent with the recommendations of public health experts and will save lives."
The petition argues that subjecting non-dangerous prisoners with disabilities to an outbreak of COVID-19 amounts to deliberate indifference to prisoners' health and safety.
Inmates in overcrowded facilities are unable to exercise social distancing, which is one of the key ways to prevent the spread of the virus, the petition states.
On March 23, Chief Justice Mike McGrath asked city and county courts to consider releasing as many people from jail as possible to avoid the spread of the virus. The petition argues that only some counties are doing so.
"This is a dire emergency," said Justin Stalpes, attorney at Beck, Amsden and Stalpes. "The response cannot be patchwork — the only thing that will stop, or at least slow, the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in correctional facilities and communities is a swift and uniform state-wide response."
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
Montana's health department reported 208 cases of COVID-19, 17 hospitalizations and five deaths as of Wednesday morning.