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A judge is intervening in the treatment of a Montana State Prison inmate, prohibiting any more of the solitary confinement treatment that originally prompted advocates to file a lawsuit on the 19-year-old man’s behalf. 

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock issued an order last week saying the prison cannot house Raistlen Katka in solitary confinement until his February trial. Sherlock said in his order that Katka appears to be improving his behavior under a new specialized treatment plan. 

“The time between now and the trial is not a particularly long time, and while the court does not wish to interfere with the prison’s legitimate operations, the court finds that plaintiff’s current treatment plan is working very well and should continue,” Sherlock wrote. 

A lawyer for the state said the judge’s order does not have any effect on Katka’s current situation. 

In 2009, the Montana ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Katka, then a juvenile in the prison, arguing that the boy was being subjected to “torturous” treatment. The boy was sent to the adult facility after assaulting a guard at a youth facility. 

Over that time, Katka has tried to kill himself, been released from solitary, sent to the state mental hospital and returned to the prison. He has undergone multiple psychological evaluations over the time. 

Sherlock said in his order that Katka “is a difficult person to manage,” but noted that his behavior seems to have improved greatly. The judge said that, although courts generally give prison officials wide latitude in their policies, an injunction against any solitary confinement makes sense in Katka’s case. 

The ACLU welcomed the decision. 

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“Since we were able to secure his release from solitary confinement last year and get him mental health treatment, he has done far better than he did under the prison’s ‘behavior management plans,’ ” ACLU Legal Director Betsy Griffing said in a statement. “He’s earned his GED and is learning a vocational skill.” 

The ACLU said it plans to continue to litigate the case even if Katka is released before a decision in the mistreatment case is reached. It argues the treatment violated the Montana Constitution’s right to human dignity, and believes the issue needs to be tried in court to prevent similar treatment, especially in cases of juveniles with mental illness. 

A lawyer hired by the Department of Corrections, Max Davis of Great Falls, said he was surprised the judge would enter a decision after a 2010 hearing into the matter. 

“Once he was returned to prison in December from the hospital, he has progressed,” Davis said. “We were hopeful that the issues that prompted the ACLU to seek this hearing were moot given their client’s own conduct.”

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