Montana State Prison struggles with heat; inmate spouse claims frigid conditions

The wife of an inmate at Montana State Prison said parts of the facility have been without adequate heat for several days despite near-zero temperatures, causing her to worry about the safety and comfort of her husband.

The woman, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of retaliation, said ice crystals have formed on the walls of some high security cells, leaving prisoners to brace against the cold at night. Other prisoners are doubling up on clothing, so long as their unit of the prison permits it, she said.

“At night, they’re shivering all night long because they’re locked in a cell without heat,” the woman said. “They’re wearing everything they have. It’s still not fixed.”

The wife raised her concerns with prison officials via email in December, saying cold temperatures prevailed throughout the prison. That included the visitation room, where “inmates and visitors are literally blowing into their hands and rubbing arms and legs to keep warm.”

While that issue was apparently fixed earlier this week, she said, inmates in other areas of the prison have no heat in their cells, leaving ice crystals to form on the walls and ceiling. She said prisoners in locked housing weren’t given extra clothing to compensate.

“Locked housing protocol does not allow inmates to wear anything more than the jumpsuit they are forced to change into when entering detention,” she said. “My husband, who is presently in solitary, was forced to strip and put on a jumpsuit, leaving his thermals and sweatshirt behind. They are not allowed to wear anything more than that designated jumpsuit.”

The prison’s communications director, Amy Barton, said the facility has experienced some issues with the boiler system this winter, including staff offices and one high security unit.

The prison’s maintenance staff was working to resolve the problems, she said, and several issues had already been fixed.

“We had a boiler down in the staff offices, and they’re working to get that going again,” Barton said Wednesday. “The other was in (a high security) unit, where we had a backup boiler go down.”

Barton said the challenges with the boiler weren’t causing significant heating issues, though she said temperatures were a little uncomfortable at times. She said the inmates are safe.

“I did have a staff member say it was a little colder in that (high security) unit, and maintenance came back and it was going again by yesterday afternoon,” Barton said. “I believe everything has been addressed and they’re on top of it, keeping it going throughout this cold spell.”

Barton said the prison has had boiler issues in the past, particularly when temperatures drop significantly. Temperatures in Deer Lodge, where the prison is located, have hovered between 8 degrees at day with nighttime lows of minus 5.

“It’s a constant battle in the facility keeping it (the boiler) going with the cold snap,” Barton said. “Every winter we go through this with these cold spells. Our maintenance staff is working as hard as they can to keep those boilers going and keep everyone as warm as possible.”

While the wife raised concerns over heating issues at the prison in early December, she said many of the problems went unaddressed by prison staff.

“The visitation room did have the heater fixed after six weeks of emailing with the warden,” said woman said. “But what broke last Sunday night was that heat in High Side 2. The sleeping quarters, where they literally are forced to sleep and are locked in with bars each night, it has no heat.”

The Missoula Current couldn’t independently verify the conditions.