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Corrections Dept: Decision to end public notice of prison deaths was internal

Corrections Dept: Decision to end public notice of prison deaths was internal

Montana State Prison

Prisoners walk into a unit at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge in this file photo.

The Department of Corrections has corrected a comment from a prison spokeswoman to the Missoulian last week stating the Governor's Office had issued a directive to no longer issue press releases about inmate deaths.

The Governor's Office communications director told the Missoulian this week there was no such directive, and referred further inquiries to the Montana Department of Corrections. 

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Carolynn Bright said Wednesday issuing public notices to the press when an inmate dies has always been an "informal practice," not a written policy. The change in that practice was the product of an "informal conversation" last fall with Montana Department of Corrections Deputy Director Cynthia Wolken, Bright said. 

"It's a practice we decided to move away from," Bright said. "It's handled differently by different D.O.C.'s across the country. As we're sending out these press releases, we have other considerations to include, including family members and victims." 

Bright said the prison had always involved the department's victim liaisons to notify family members and victims prior to sending out press releases on inmate deaths in the past.

The error was made in comment by Amy Barton, a spokeswoman for the prison, when she told the Missoulian on July 2 a directive from the governor's office had included ending the practice of issuing press releases for inmate deaths. Barton was responding to an inquiry by the Missoulian about the death of Laurence Alan Stewart II, a 33-year-old life sentence inmate who died by apparent hanging on April 30. Stewart was in litigation with the state prison over sexual harassment claims substantiated during a Human Rights Bureau case. A settlement session between Stewart and the prison had come to an impasse two days before his death. 

Barton was not party to that informal conversation in fall 2019 to stop issuing press releases about inmate deaths, Bright said Wednesday. Still, Barton had issued a press release about another inmate death on April 9, three weeks before Stewart's death, after 74-year-old Jerry Forsyth died from an "extended illness," according to the release.

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