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Montana State Prison complex

The Montana State Prison complex at Deer Lodge is seen in this file photo.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch of Missoula said Friday he would approve a settlement between the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the Montana Department of Justice over the conditions of prison inmates, the latest move in a lawsuit filed more than 25 years ago.

The case dates back to a lawsuit regarding prison conditions filed in 1992 after a riot the previous year at the Montana State Prison’s maximum security unit in which five inmates were killed.

In 1995, the state settled the initial lawsuit, leading to some reforms in inmate conditions regarding medical care, work programs and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But in 2013, experts appointed by the court found the prison was not meeting those ADA requirements because it was not offering equal opportunities to inmates with physical or mental disabilities, and the matter was reopened.

Lynch said he remembered when he became a federal magistrate judge in 2006 and the case, which had already been active for a decade, was transferred to him.

“I came in with vim and vinegar and, by God, I was going to get this done in a year,” he said.

The new settlement includes policy updates for the prison as well as adding ADA compliance features such as wheelchair ramps and grab bars.

“I think there were very significant improvements made at the prison, and other facilities, as a result,” Lynch told attorneys for both sides at Friday’s hearing.

The settlement condenses two cases, with Lynch presiding over one, and U.S. District Court Judge Don Molloy the other. Lynch asked the attorneys to confer over whether he could sign off on the settlement himself or whether he should write a recommendation to Molloy.

Under the agreement, the state will pay the attorney costs for the ACLU and the Civil Rights Education Enforcement Center, which are representing clients in the class action.

It also specifies that inmates will also not be disciplined or moved to higher security because of a disability or behavior that is the result of a mental or physical disability, unless they present a danger.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.