Human rights bureau dismisses prison complaint

By Matt Gouras
Helena, Montana (AP) 11-09

The Montana Human Rights Bureau has dismissed a complaint that alleged the private Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby was discriminating against Native Americans.

Human Rights Bureau Chief Katherine Kountz said there was no reason to believe discrimination took place, according to a report released during October by the agency.

The case stems from an earlier finding that Native American inmates were subjected to strip searches after sweat-lodge ceremonies. Prison officials said the searches were a reaction to concerns over contraband.

The inmates complained of inadequate facilities for their sweat lodge ceremonies, denial of items such as antlers to perform their religious ceremonies, the strip searches, and allegations of being mistreated for making the complaints.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the complaint on behalf of the inmates, said it believes that the Human Rights Bureau research affirmed their case.

The ACLU said it plans to appeal Kountz’s decision to the full Montana Human Rights Commission.

“This is just the initial stage of the proceeding, and it was just one investigator’s report,” said ACLU Montana Legal Director Betsy Griffing. “We want to give the commission the opportunity to evaluate both sides of the issue.”

The Department of Corrections welcomed the decision and said it shows no pattern of discrimination was to blame.

The agency did say, however, that the issue and resulting investigations have shown areas that can be improved, such as grievance procedures, cultural diversity training and improved communication with the department.

But the Human Rights Bureau sided with the Corrections Department on core issues.

The report, which is dated Oct. 9, said there was no systematic denial of Native Americans materials they sought, such as tobacco.

The report also said adequate facilities are provided for the sweat lodge ceremonies and said that the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the Shelby prison, have a credible explanation for the events.