McMeekin, Detention Center panned in report on 2006 abuse of detainee

by Jay Stevens

An old story has cropped up in the Missoulian today, the case of a mentally ill woman being mistreated at the Missoula County Detention Center. The incident happened back in 2006 — my regular, long-term readers might remember a few scathing posts I wrote, first lambasting reporter Tristan Scott, then Sherriff McMeekin for letting the detention center discipline and training degrade to allow the incident to take place, then some anger over the firing of the whistleblower, Mike Burch, for bringing the incident to the public’s attention.

The latest? A civil rights group representing people with disabilities that investigates “allegations of abuse or neglect” — Disability Rights Montana — released its report on the incident. It ain’t good:

According to the report’s findings, jail staff failed to screen Adele for mental illness when she arrived; violated its own policies, including one defining the circumstances in which nonlethal weapons such as a pepperball gun may be used; committed assault on an inmate; and violated the Montana Elder and Persons with Developmental Disabilities Abuse Prevention Act, which requires law enforcement and other public officials to report instances of abuse to one of several government agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services.

Worse still, Disability Rights Montana claims its report is over 20 months late because McMeekin’s office “consistently delayed or refused to provide information for over 18 months.”

So, why is this important?

Alexandra Volkerts, an attorney for Disability Rights Montana, said the report’s findings are important because jails and emergency rooms have become “default holding systems” for people with mental health issues due to a dearth of local services.

“People with serious mental illness do not belong in jails, particularly those people who have been picked up on minor crimes,” Volkerts said. “Those resources are inefficient, inappropriate and, sometimes, such as in this situation, inhumane. We had a detention officer who made some very bad choices, and those choices resulted in the abuse of a mentally ill woman.”

The worst part of this incident is that, as Volkerts noted, “[the Sherriff’s office] investigation exonerated the officer who was abusive and punished the officer who made the correct moral choice.”

Whistleblower Mike Burch was the true hero in all of this. He leaked the incident report to the press knowing he would be fired. I talked to him over the phone about it shortly after the story broke, before he was fired, and he told me his dismissal was inevitable. Sure enough, a few weeks later, he was fired.

But while the outcome and repercussions of the indicident are still in doubt — there’s federal litigation pending — Burch won’t see the effects of his actions. He died of a heart attack in 2007.


  1. jim

    Maybe It’s time to recall McMeekin.

  2. Nick D

    Or we could simply stop electing him over and over. There have been some great alternatives over the years, but apparently Missoulians are willing to let him stop just short of eating babies before we’ll throw him out of office.

  3. JC

    Fortunately, St. Patrick Hospital, in its new ER construction project that should finish up next year, has included a dedicated mental health ER unit in it. They are spending $750,000 to be able to treat mental health emergencies at the ER facility.

    Hopefully, this will help alleviate the needless incarceration, and subsequent abuse of people like Adele who need treatment for mental health issues instead of simply being shunted off to a jail woefully unprepared to deal with people whose mental health crises result in misdemeanors.

  4. reports about the aberrant behavior of sheriff mcmeekin on the black cat fire a few years ago seem to have been swept under the rug. probably with the same iron-fisted rule of his deputies that got mike burch fired.

    how i long for the halcean days of sheriff doug chase. his even handed and fair treatment of both citizenry and county employees provide a stark contrast to the fear tactics and bitter behavior of the current office-holder.

  5. JC

    Ya. McMeekin’s behavior during Black Cat would have garnered any other citizen a pepper ball treatment in the county jail.

  1. 1 Missoula County agrees to pay $490M for detention center abuse « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] looks like the story of the abuse of a mentally ill woman at the Missoula County Detention Center is coming to a close: Missoula County officials have agreed to pay $490,000 to settle a federal […]

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