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Corrections Dept. to publicly list deaths

Corrections Dept. to publicly list deaths

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Montana State Prison

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

The Montana Department of Corrections on Thursday said it was changing course from a previous decision to stay mum about in-custody deaths.

The decision to list publicly those who have died in the custody of the Corrections Department comes weeks after the Missoulian reported 20 inmate deaths have occurred since the department quietly decided in September 2019 to end the practice of issuing public notices about the deceased.

"The department took some time to digest the feedback we received over the past few weeks on how best to provide information about inmate deaths to the public. We believe this is an appropriate solution," Department of Corrections Director Reginald Michael said in a press release Thursday. "The information is easily accessible on the website, but we are also taking into consideration the privacy of inmate families and the effect on victims."

The most recent death in DOC custody was Monday, when Leonard Douglas died at Riverside Special Needs Unit in Boulder, according to the department's report listed online. The facility in Boulder houses inmates with serious, long-term medical needs who were previously held at an infirmary in Lewistown.

Another man, Dennis Stuart, died on March 21 at Marias Medical Center. Stuart's death was previously unreported because it was not included in a July 8 response by the department to a Missoulian query into who had died since the DOC stopped issuing notices 10 months ago; Department of Corrections spokeswoman Carolynn Bright said Wednesday Stuart's name was not included in the response because "an error occurred in the way data was pulled on July 8."

Stuart's and Douglas' deaths make 22 deaths in Department of Corrections' custody since September 2019.

Asked if the Department of Corrections will issue public announcements upon an inmate's death, Bright said it would, but only in certain cases, including a COVID-19-related death. 

"As a matter of course, the department will not issue press releases should an inmate pass away of natural causes or apparent suicide," Bright said in an email. "That said, should an offender die under apparent suspicious circumstances, such as homicide in one of our facilities, be assured the DOC would issue a press release notifying the public of the situation and directing queries to the appropriate investigating office. Also, in response to the public's concern related to COVID-19, the department would issue a press release in the case of a COVID-19 death in a format that ensures the inmate's privacy."

At this time, the department has had no COVID-related inmate deaths, Bright added.

While Douglas' name, correctional identification number, date of death and location of death are included on the new listing, preliminary information such as initial findings on cause of death, sentencing information and age — information included in previous notices of in-custody deaths — is not readily available. 

The press release and the listing page make note that, under Montana law, the county coroner shall inquire into and determine the cause, manner and circumstances of an in-custody death. That information shall be provided to the county attorney with local jurisdiction to the inmate's death and may conduct an inquest into the cause of death. 

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