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Katka settlement may change Montana prison policy



Attorneys for Raistlen Katka, who was sent to Montana State Prison just after his 16th birthday, say they're pleased with a settlement that will reshape how jailers at Montana State Prison treat juvenile inmates and those who are mentally ill. "I feel like we made a huge difference," says Helena attorney Andree Larose.

Larose, along with the ACLU of Montana and other cooperating attorneys, sued the Montana Department of Corrections in 2009 alleging the state violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment when it placed the 17-year-old Katka alone in a cell for nine months.

As the Independent reported in March, the Katka lawsuit is similar to two others filed against the DOC since 2000. Each of them alleges that mentally ill inmates were punished with increasing severity because they didn't receive proper mental health treatment while incarcerated.

Katka was sent to MSP after getting into an altercation with two guards at Pine Hills Youth Correctional facility. When he arrived at the prison, he had a history of mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorder and major depressive disorder.

The teenager acted out while incarcerated. His behavior earned him nine months inside MSP's special housing unit. While there, he spent 23 hours a day in a cell alone. His mental state worsened. The prison put him on behavior management plans that included dressing him in a gown and placing him in a padded cell that remained lit through the night.

While incarcerated, Katka tried four times to kill himself. The fourth time, he used a shaving razor to slit his wrists in the shower. Emergency personnel had to resuscitate him.

The settlement agreement between Katka's attorneys and the state mandates juvenile offenders cannot be kept in solitary for more than 72 hours, unless the warden or DOC director signs off on a longer stay.

The agreement also stipulates that mentally ill prisoners cannot be placed in solitary if medical staff finds it will worsen mental health. Similarly, suicidal inmates cannot be placed on behavior management plans.

While Katka's counsel says the settlement is significant, Max Davis, a private attorney representing the state in the Katka proceedings, said this week in a written statement that it requires "virtually no change in existing practices at Montana State Prison involving offenders who are under 18."

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