Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) A federal judge has ruled that class-action claims in which jail inmates allege a host of issues ranging from poor living conditions to being denied access to medical care can proceed against Lake County and the State of Montana.

However, Judge Donald W. Molloy narrowed the number of inmates who could join the class-action lawsuit and also said that a smaller group of Native American inmates cannot yet file as a separate part of the class on claims they were denied medical treatment in violation of the Hellgate Treaty. The treaty is a pact signed in 1855 with the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes.

The prisoners, most of them formerly held in Polson by Lake County authorities, argue that their constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, access to the courts and to be free of cruel or unusual punishment have all been violated. Moreover, they allege the county and state have violated the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion, including a violation of the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Both Lake County and Gov. Greg Gianforte in his official capacity as leader of the state have been sued, but in a separate filing, Lake County included a crossclaim against Gianforte, saying “he is responsible for the ultimate funding and administration of the state’s Public Law 280 obligations, and therefore, the jail.”

Inmates charge that Lake County has failed to provide an adequate jail and that crowding has led to unsanitary conditions. Prisoners there, according to previous documents, lack legal access, are charged to see a doctor, and are forced to listen to a Christian pastor.

In the order Tuesday, Molloy also narrowed the size and definitions of the class, ruling that attorneys for the inmates could not reach back as far as the statute of limitations allows, rather the class could only include inmates held at the Lake County jail since Sept. 3, 2021, “including current and future inmates.”

County officials and state attorneys argued that inmates had not exhausted all the administrative remedies to resolve problems at the jail. Moreover, they also said that each inmate’s claim would be different, and therefore ineligible as a group or class.

“Each inmate might have a slightly different concern on a different day, but they are all subject to living in the same conditions and suffering the same harms,” Molloy said.