Missoula County Jail Update

We bloggers tend to rush to judgment, cry “foul” whenever we see a perceived slight or possible malicious tinkering with information found in traditional media outlets – newspapers, television, radio. Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re wrong.

The other day I blogged about the disparity in coverage of possible inmate abuse at the Missoula County detention center. I was aggressive in my judgment and concluded:

The real story now isn’t whether an officer violated an inmate’s basic civil rights, it’s whether the Sheriff, in collusion with the Missoulian, is covering the story up.

After I posted, I called Tristan Scott, the author of the Missoulian story, “whistleblower” Mike Burch, and emailed the Independent’s Brad Tyer to find out why parts of the story were omitted.

The answer certainly isn’t collusion. Tristan Scott wasn’t trying to cover up the story.

What appears to have happened is that Scott, faced with deadline pressures, time constraints, and a slog of work, might have rushed the story to print assuming that the real story in this incident was the way the inmate was subdued, hinting that possible excessive force was used when shooting the inmate seven times with a pepperball gun.

In Tyer’s story, I think emphasis was correctly put on what happened after the restraint. Namely that the inmate was tied to a chair while still covered in pepper powder, which causes severe physical distress, and that the inmate’s physical distress was used to coerce her into cooperation.

As for the radio reports – which I haven’t heard – apparently they either followed Scott’s lead, or independently came to the same conclusion, that the actual restraint was the real story.

Both Tyer and Scott hinted that they were working on follow-ups to the story, but wouldn’t reveal what those stories may be. (Rightfully so. I’d post a rumor in half a heartbeat if I thought I’d get ten extra readers.)

What’s certainly at the heart of this particular incident is that it does seem to fall into a long list of such incidents playing out at the jail. And Independent reporter Brad Tyer has already gone over this ground, with perhaps some disturbing foreshadowing (emphasis mine):

It was March 2004 when Missoula physician Liz Rantz, medical director for the Montana Department of Corrections, announced her retirement after 12 years as doctor for county inmates, including the last six at the Missoula County Detention Center on Mullan Road. On her way out, Rantz vented her frustrations—including an increase in mentally ill patients being warehoused in a detention center unprepared to properly care for them, inmate alcoholism and the challenges of balancing appropriate health care with the requirements of tight county budgets—telling the Missoulian, “the whole justice prison system is based on things that to me are flawed.”

If you haven’t read Tyer’s story, do so now. It lists a long string of abuses involving detention officers, medical attention, turnover rates, complaints – the whole shebang.

Let me get one thing clear. I am not indicting the whole staff at the jail. Like most organizations, I assume that the bulk of the staff are good, competent officers trying their d*mndest to do the job right. The high rate of anonymous complaints, resignations accompanied by whistle-blowing (like in Mike Burch’s case), the apparent infighting within the organization attests to the concern the majority of the staff feels for the deteriorated environment at the jail.

H*ll, I don’t even judge the officer in the most recent case for his use of seven pepperball bullets to subdue the inmate in question. I wasn’t there! I can’t imagine the stress of having to deal with a hysterical and (according to Sheriff McMeekin) physically imposing woman who might be violent! I probably would have kept shooting the d*mn gun myself twice as much!

(The ensuing torture is, of course, a different matter. Considering the officer in question left the inmate for forty-four minutes showed that he wasn’t acting on impulse or out of fear, but that he had plenty of time to think over his actions, plenty of time to cool down. The torture was deliberate and malicious.)

The problems at the jail boil down to one thing: discipline.

You can’t allow a few bad officers to keep perpetrating abuses and act unethically. They need to be disciplined swiftly and severely. Otherwise disorder will follow.

To me, this is an institutional problem, and ultimately I agree with Tyer’s conclusion in the 2005 piece: McMeekin is the problem.

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  1. 1 Missoula Country Detention Center whistleblower fired « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] You may also remember what I said about the case, that I cited a 2005 report on the systemic problems at the Missoula Country Detention Center, and I concluded: Let me get one thing clear. I am not indicting the whole staff at the jail. Like most organizations, I assume that the bulk of the staff are good, competent officers trying their d*mndest to do the job right. The high rate of anonymous complaints, resignations accompanied by whistle-blowing (like in Mike Burch’s case), the apparent infighting within the organization attests to the concern the majority of the staff feels for the deteriorated environment at the jail. […]




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