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Sheriff's Officials Address Report on Montana Jails

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MISSOULA -

Officials at the Missoula County Sheriff's Office say they're happy the struggles they face with their detention facility are getting some recognition. This comes after the Montana American Civil Liberties Union report released on Monday outlined poor conditions at Montana jails.

The report shows Missoula's detention center needed to work on inmate's medical care and mental health services more than any other jail in the state. The folks who conducted the research say overcrowding is at the core of these issues.

"We were encouraged believe it or not, because this report helps us by highlighting the challenges we face every day," said Missoula County Undersheriff Jason Johnson.

He addressed a new ACLU report, "Locked in the Past: Montana's Jails in Crisis,” released earlier this week, which points out a number of problems with Montana jails, including the Missoula County Detention Center.

“For the ACLU to highlight those things actually helps us it helps educate our community about issues we're dealing with,” Johnson said.

Jake Coolidge is the University of Montana School of Law school rep on the ACLU board. He and his colleagues decided to start researching for the report in early 2013 after receiving complaints from various inmates about the poor conditions they deal with.

"There was no comprehensive understanding of where they compared to the standards and where they should be, so we launched an investigation to determine where they really were and compare it to standards we researched," Coolidge said.

After touring more than 20 of the state's detention centers and surveying more than 300 inmates, the report finds Missoula had the largest percentage of inmates in the state say they have inadequate access to health services and limited access to mental health services.

Johnson read off just how much money the department has spent on medical and mental health services for inmates in the last year. More than $972,000 was spent on mental health costs, dental fees and outside medical care.

Coolidge says there's a bigger problem here, not just in Missoula, but state wide.

"These problems are symptoms of overcrowding. Overcrowding is at the core of what is going on.”

He says fixing all the issues will start with solving the overcrowding problem.

"More effective pretrial decisions like more reasonable bail would go all along way with these problems."

Sheriff's officials work to find alternative treatment and work-release programs to help alleviate overcrowding.

“Overcrowding and under staffing are issues we're working on daily, trying to resolve those things,” Johnson said.

Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott has already reached out to other leaders to solve this issue. On Wednesday he met with county commissioners to discuss solutions to the overcrowding problem.

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