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Prisoner with history of mental illness commits suicide at Montana state prison

Posted at 4:03 PM, Jun 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-07 18:52:08-04

A man with a history of mental illness and self-harm died May 23 after he disemboweled himself while in custody at the Montana State Prison,reports The Daily Montanan.

Shaun Duncan Morrison, 39, died from a self-inflicted open wound to his stomach wall, according to his death certificate. Morrison caused the injury to himself on May 19. He lived for four days before dying from his injuries as well as sepsis while receiving treatment at Benefis Healthcare System in Great Falls.

Morrison was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after he killed another inmate at the prison in 2011. Morrison was part of a group of prisoners who were involved in a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Corrections and the state prison concerning the treatment of incarcerated people with mental illness. Prior to that, he was incarcerated for attacking a police officer, records show.

“In our opinion, (his death) was foreseeable and it was preventable,” said Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director for Disability Rights Montana. “And the Montana Department of Corrections should be held accountable for Shaun’s death.”

Disability Rights Montana is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Montana DOC and state prison. Morrison’s history of self harm included multiple recorded attempts to die by suicide, Franks-Ongoy said.

Disability Rights Montana and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Montana Department of Corrections and the Montana State Prison in 2015 on behalf of Morrison and at least seven others. The lawsuit accused the Montana State Prison of subjecting these people to “cruel and unusual punishment” with the prison’s use of, in some cases, almost constant solitary confinement as well as its behavioral management plans.

The Montana Department of Corrections denied these allegations in its response to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is ongoing and scheduled for trial March 21, 2022 in the U.S. District Court of Montana in Missoula.

Prior to his death, Montana State Prison was holding Morrison in the Secure Adjustment Unit, according to Carolynn Bright, communications director for the Montana Department of Corrections.

The unit is similar to the Restrictive Housing Unit, which requires an inmate to be locked down for at least 22 hours a day. However, the Secure Adjustment Unit is for people with severe mental illness. Those in the Secure Adjustment Unit “receive intensive programming related to their mental illness that minimizes risk to themselves and others,” according to the Department of Corrections’ 2021 Biennial Report.

The Montana Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a question of whether it would investigate the circumstances of Morrison’s death.