DEER LODGE — Ground squirrels are breaking into the Montana State Prison.
“We had three at a time in here,” said one inmate, who identified the intruders as squirrels.
Department of Corrections Spokeswoman Judy Beck confirmed that gophers — not squirrels — have entered some rooms, but described the problem as something maintenance is aware of and repairing.
Whatever the suspect's species, both the inmate and prison confirmed that the critters have chewed through window screens, allowing them to invade low-security housing units. Birds and spiders also have reportedly entered rooms. Some inmates fear that a skunk seen wandering the grounds will be next, said the inmate, whose name is being withheld by the Missoulian.
Relatives are worried people might become ill because rodents and birds are known to be carriers of human diseases.
Some inmates tried to block the holes with cardboard or other objects, but guards have told them to remove the barriers, said the inmate. Beck said covering windows is a security threat and against prison rules.
“Some of the screens in this area are old and damaged,” Beck said of the 40-year-old facility in Deer Lodge. “Maintenance is aware of the problem but replacing damaged screens is an ongoing process.”
The rodents have been attracted by food, said the inmate and the department spokeswoman.
“We instruct inmates not to feed and encourage the gophers, but many inmates continued to do so,” Beck said. “They open their windows and place food on the window ledges. This leads to further damage of the screens.”
If an inmate does not want the animals in his room, Beck said “he can simply close his window.”
Inmates living in some ground-level housing units are free to open doors and windows during certain times of the day. The units do not have air conditioning, only fans in the common areas.
The inmate and relatives said they cannot simply close their windows because the fans are not adequate to circulate the air and to keep the rooms cool during the hot summer. Each room typically houses two people.