Montana Women's Prison

Montana Women's Prison in Billings. 

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The state has agreed to pay a portion of an inmate’s attorney fees and have a warden undergo training on religion rights to settle a discrimination claim.

May Simmons, an inmate at the Montana Women’s Prison, settled with the Department of Corrections in October, and a copy of the agreement was released this week.

Simmons had alleged the prison discriminated against her by failing to grant her full access to worship services as a Jehovah’s Witness.

After reviewing the claim, the Montana Human Rights Bureau found the department likely violated the law by denying Simmons use of the prison chapel while permitting its use for other religions.

Officials with the Department of Corrections admit no violation of the law and signed the agreement in order to “buy their peace and resolve this case without further proceedings,” the settlement states.

The agreement requires the department to pay $4,400 in attorney fees for Simmons’ attorney, Eric Holm, and to pay $1,000 to Simmons.

In exchange, Simmons has agreed to release the department from the claims in her discrimination complaint, which cover not just her treatment as a Jehovah’s Witness, but also disparities in vocational programming at the men’s and women’s prisons.

Simmons' attorney said his client and the department weren't able to reach an agreement on those claims. 

"Just because it involved the state, it involved a lot of funding issues, and I think the parties were just not going to be able to reach an agreement on that," Holm said. 

The agreement also calls for Warden Jennie Hansen and Community Relations Manager Annamae Siegfried-Derrick to complete at least two hours of training on human rights and religion under state law.

It requires the prison to look for any instances in the past year in which it failed to provide all services without discrimination and come up with a fix for any failures.

The training and one-year analysis are to be done and results forwarded to the Montana Human Rights Bureau by Feb. 10, 2020.

Simmons also secured a provision in the settlement stating that any inmate who is bumped from using weekly activities such as AA meetings or yoga must still be allowed to attend religious services.

Finally, the department agreed to buy Simmons a typewriter for use in her cell. Simmons is an active prison reform advocate and often writes lawmakers, files petitions with the Montana Supreme Court, and writes complaints under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Simmons has carpal tunnel syndrome and cannot easily hand-write at length. She said inmate time at the law library is limited to an hour a day.

The typewriter will remain at the prison as departmental property when Simmons is released in December.

The Human Rights Bureau found "reasonable cause to believe unlawful discrimination occurred" after receiving Simmons' complaint initially, in August 2018. 

Data provided by the bureau show that while discrimination complaints by Montana’s prison inmates are relatively common, findings of “reasonable cause” are rare. From 2014 through 2018, state human rights investigators concluded there was “cause” in only three out of 57 such complaints that have been closed.

This article originally ran on billingsgazette.com.

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