“Nothing Criminal” about Dying in Jail from Alcohol Withdrawal Seizure Neglect

by JC

Heather Wasson
RIP, Heather Wasson.

Ok, sure. Whatever. So the inquest coroner’s jury found that “there was nothing criminal about the June death of a female inmate at the Missoula County.”

Nothing criminal about letting people with treatable illnesses die needlessly in jail? Then I daresay that our City Council’s attempts to outlaw panhandling and criminalize homelessness are misplaced indignations. I think the far more grievous crime is our ability as a community to deny any responsibility for deaths like Wasson’s.

Not criminal? We’re all criminals when we allow our public servants to lockup people who desperately need medical care, not incarceration.

My condolences to the Wasson family.

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  1. problembear

    seems to be a disconnect between the public and missoula’s law enforcement agencies these days….a big intractable and dangerous wall that insulates itself from oversight and never admits fault and plays our elected officials like their own personal instruments.

    where is the accountability?

    first they torture a woman, now they let one die….
    wonder who the whistle blower will be this time from that worm farm of mcmeekin’s? course, since the last guy to blow the whistle was fired that should keep a good tight lid on this too. fear and intimidation always work well to stifle the truth.

    • Accountability starts with the Sheriff, his department, and the county commissioners.

      And elections. The Sheriff race doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Let’s hope that next time around, it does.

      I wonder if there is a recall provision.

  2. Jim Lang

    I’ve never looked that happy in any of my mugshots.

  3. Lizard

    if a person without means in Missoula wants to detox, and needs to do so medically, there are virtually no more resources available other than an overburdened St. Pats, who operate there own sort of potential death panel by refusing to admit certain undesirables until their predicament becomes dire enough.

    as i mentioned in the spring, Share House lost it’s funding to keep their detox beds open, and were forced to stop providing that service at the end of July. as JC’s post indicates, withdrawal seizures can result in death, and once alcoholism has reached that extremely dependent stage, alcohol is necessary to keep the body from seizing up.

    but i don’t expect too many people to care about a drunk woman dying in prison. in a country that allows its leaders to torture foreigners and imprison millions of its own citizens on non-violent drug charges, what does the death of one woman who died unnecessarily at the hands of her jailers matter?

  4. goof houlihan

    Many bad things happen that aren’t “criminal”.

    • klemz

      It’s not up to us to decide whether it’s criminal, but it’s worth noting that, once again, it appears the dept gets off the hook for cruelty and/or gross incompetence.

      • goof houlihan

        You’re right. And the people, whose decision it is, decided it wasn’t criminal.

        • klemz

          Umm… alright.

          I’m just saying the criticisms have merit considering the history of the law enforcement agency in question. Whether charges are filed or, as it appears will be the case, not, how many of these events have to take place before Missoula County voters chose to clean house?

          • Yes.

            I think about this and I wonder: What if this was your mother, or your aunt? Or your brother or your husband? Picked up on a DUI (i.e., not on some other crime like robbery or drug dealing)?

            A jail is one of the more necessary but sordid things a civil society requires…and it is there to serve that community. EVERYONE in that community.

            Somebody cared about Heather. I don’t know what she did, but no one deserves to die when locked away from something that would have been prevented with minimal medical attention or even minimal oversight and supervision.

            Something like that happens in third world countries. Or here in Montana. Not once. Not twice….but over and over.

            Commenters are right….it ain’t criminal, but it sure ain’t right.

  5. Mayor of Mayhem

    Goof, Maybe it ain’t criminal but it sure ain’t right.

    • goof houlihan

      Changing the subject?

      • Lizard

        no, i’m just trying to discern what sort of negative behavior by law enforcement you would consider to be criminal. maybe you would consider tazing a woman in front of her kids because she had the audacity to demand proof of the charge levied against her in bad taste.

        • goof houlihan

          Unfortunately, the behavior cited in the complaint discussed here answers your question, Lizard.

          http://bozemandailychronicle.com/articles/2009/08/18/news/10suit.txt

          In the lawsuit, White claims that police were negligent, violated his civil and constitutional rights, wrongfully arrested him, assaulted him and caused him emotional distress when Anderson entered White’s apartment, intending to arrest a different man on a warrant for failing to pay a fine.

          White was charged with resisting arrest and obstructing a peace officer Feb. 14, when he closed an interior door to the foyer of his apartment after he saw a man there. White, who had been sleeping, claims he did not hear a knock or doorbell at his apartment at 405A South 11th Ave. The lawsuit alleges that Anderson entered his home without knocking and did not identify himself as an officer.

  6. problembear

    not really goof. i find the link completely on topic especially when all of us must realize that an attorney is at this very moment working on filing a civil lawsuit against missoula county for this needless and completely preventable death while heather was in custody of sheriff mcmeekin’s crew.

    i wonder how much of our property tax payments will be used to pay for the sheriff’s further incompetence and disregard for inmate safety measures. just like i wonder how much money the county paid for the sheriff’s deputy’s torture of the mentally challenged woman a few years ago?

    criminal – maybe not. unless you consider it criminal that we all pay for sheriff mcmeekin’s shortcomings. i do.

  7. goof houlihan

    Boys, and that’s what you are with your little revolutions against authority, boys, “bad taste” and “civil suits” aren’t “criminal”.

    Get it?

    The same governments you turn to for everything, and to control everything, you decry when it suits you. Why are you surprised when authority is abused? You’re the ones granting government all it’s authority every chance you get.

    Put government back into it’s proper role, and withdraw as much authority and power from government as possible, and there will be fewer abuses.

    • problembear

      You can go off the deep end and try to eliminate “government” or you can be intelligent enough to vote for people who are not prone to abuse their authority. Like bush/cheney or sherrif mcmeekin.

      A viable and intelligent gop would serve as some ballast and stabilizing force in this regard. Too bad the gop threw in with racists and right wing lunatics.

      Guess we independents and demos will have to muddle along without their help for the time being.

    • JC

      Excuse me Goof? The Bush Administration and republicans had an unprecedented grab for executive authority, unmatched by either the dems before or after. Drop it.

      Don’t make this thread about politics. That wasn’t my intent with posting it. Or civil liability–that issue will play out over time. I have crossed paths with Heather, and was waiting till the inquest came back with some findings to say anything.

      The direct criminality of any individual was determined by the jury to be nonexistent. I expected as much. I’m not disputing that.

      What is the key issue is one of neglect. Neglect by our system of incarceration that does not adequately provide for the identification of individuals that have been arrested as needing diversion to medical care. Neglect for not training our jailers to discern when an intoxicated person may suffer fatal consequences of forced detox.

      Neglect by our community for not providing adequate facilities to care for individuals who need medical detox, whether arrested and under “protective” custody or not.

      This isn’t a moral or political issue. It is a human issue. A humane issue. Either we provide medical care for those who break the law, or our jails are no better than the dank prison death pits of Mexico, Turkey or Thailand.

      • problembear

        i don’t recall sheriff doug chase having chronic problems like this crop up during his tenure. is mcmeekin running again? when is his term up? these are things i would like to know. and i bet lots of our readers would like to know as well.

        • JC

          While personalities may play some role, the issue at hand is “diversion.” And in order to have effective diversion, you need to have accurate screening (which means good training for the police and sheriff’s department), and somewhere for people to be diverted to, and doctors and other professional to treat them. And followup care.

          The ER at St. Pat’s can only handle so many alcoholism/addiction/mental health crisis issues. The ability of the Providence Center to care for those being diverted out of the jails is seriously compromised by lack of resources–beds for indigents and space for incarceration medical detoxes. And there are no other local options.

          Basically, our community has failed to provide for adequate health care resources for people like Heather. This is a wakeup call that if nothing gets done, and a coroner’s jury of no criminal conduct doesn’t stir action, then we will continue to see more people die needlessly in jail.

          How many people have to die before the community takes action?

          • Lizard

            thank you, JC, for this post and your subsequent comments. this topic really concerns me and i find the callous response to it rather sad.

      • goof houlihan

        Ah “the Bush Administration”, the last refuge of the incompetent argument. When all else fails and your claims of “criminal” fall to logic, break out the red herring. (but…but…some lawyer’s gonna sue!)

        I don’t mind read, so I can’t discuss “intent”. Whatever your intent, you disputed the finding of “nothing criminal” in your post, and I replied.

        Sometimes, when a person makes really bad decisions, really bad things happen. Those bad things aren’t society’s fault. The aren’t the taxpayer’s fault. They aren’t criminal occurences.

        Comparing our jails to Mexico, Thailand or Turkey is ridiculous hyperbole.

        • JC

          So you’re good with what happened, Goof?

          You’re just trying to frame the problem in tired old worn out terms. Bait the progresives, so you can argue with them on your black and white conservative/liberal 2D world. Ain’t going to work here.

          I’ve said here that this isn’t about politics or ideology, but you continue to drag it into that, because, it seems, that you are unable to see the role of our community in this sort of tragedy, and speak to any sort of solution, except your Reaganesque “put government back into it’s proper role” flippancy.

          Well, that’s not going to happen in Missoula (or Bozeman) any time soon. Got any better solutions?

  8. Montana255

    First there is no doubt of neglect, Heather was on suicide watch, informal, meaning she should have been checked on every 15 minutes. Second she was not given her medication as prescribed one of which she had with her. Third she was an addict but not an alcoholic, yes she did drink but not enough to give her siezures. According to the inquest testimony she showed no other signs of withdrawl and two weeks prior passed the pee test at her probation meeting. She had not violated probation for 4 years. Hard core criminal. She had no “drugs” in her system when checked by the medical examiner. Over 90 minutes passed after her siezure which was on camera before the detention center officer remembered to check her. She was not pronounced dead until over 30 minutes later at the hospital. The inquest was the most one sided event I have ever seen. Key questions were not asked or were out of context, or the important ones were forgotten by the witness even though they had copies of info in their hands. The detention center sheriff and under sheriff may not be criminaly accountable but they could have been more honest about the situation. They did not lie but ommitted truth. As far as tax payer money, I would think they are insured.

  9. Montana255

    I forgot one more thing to the goof. Can you really justify the inquest finding no criminal intent gets you off the hook? Because those individuals involved know what realy happened and if you can sleep at night I would be surprised. I doubt that this is over and what will come out then on the video that was excluded from the inquest?

  10. brandy

    My heart breaks for Heather’s family when I read this. Almost everyone knows an addict of some kind. When alcoholism reaches the stage where you will suffer withdrawal enough to lead to seizures, it is no longer in the addict’s hands. She needed help she didn’t get. Bottom line. The system failed her. Sure, you can argue that she got herself there. But once there, she should have been helped. We aren’t supposed to be a society that says otherwise. It sickens me.
    It makes me so sad. Two boys have to grow up without a mom now, when she could have been helped. If she were to safely detox, she could have come out ok…and then could have been given other help. I believe that when a person is booked, they should be medically evaluated. It it is found that they are suffering withdrawals, they should be given medications to ease withdrawal (both for suffering and for medical problems’ sakes). Anything else, I believe, IS criminal. I thought cruel and unusual punishment, neglect for medical care (addiction is a classifiable disease and disability) WERE illegal? It is an outrage. She didn’t have to die.
    Any of us who have close relatives who have struggled with alcoholism know what our response would have been…It would not have been to say that she shouldn’t have been drinking. It would have been something along the lines of, “They have nurses at the jail who KNOW that a valium could have been the difference between life and death. Why do they get to play God and decide who gets to live and die?”

  11. Reacher

    In my experience, a lot of the jailers there are as bad or worse, than some of the people that are in there. Sure, your liberties are taken away when you’/re in there – that’s the point. Make it a terrible experience so you won’t want to go back. But to deny a person of their basic human rights is appalling. They gave me no mattress – I had to sleep on the cold, hard concrete. I asked for a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and a comb – which everyone is supposed to get – and the answer I got was “I’m too f***ing busy, a**hole!” You cannot even use the toilet in privacy due to the cameras above them – talk about humiliating. And how about them “losing” (stealing) my medication? My “Celly” told me that the jailers are jerks because they can be, so the best thing to do is to let them be or they will make things even harder for you. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and not everyone who is in jail is a bad person, nor are all of the jailers. When it gets deplorable is when the people who are in charge there abuse their power. And they do – often. The criminal justice (oxymoron?) system is set up to deal with law-breakers by employing power and control. A lot of people who work in law enforcement enjoy that power and control and end up abusing it. It progresses and gets worse, just like an addiction. Did they ask to have that addiction? Of course, not. Did Heather ask to have an addiction? Of course, not. Yet Heather was damned by society and damned by the arrogant jailers for having an addiction. You can bet that after she was found dead, one of them said “One less drunk we’ve got to put up with.” Seems to me that the “bad” guys that work in law enforcement don’t have to be accountable unless they get caught and are unable to weasel their way out. Anymore, if you want to be a bad guy and never have to worry about getting into trouble, get a job as a cop. I know more than one ex-cops who quit because they got tired of watching the injustices being committed against the public on a daily basis. Like the cop who beat up his wife; gets his weapons at home taken away and spends the night in jail. Next day, he straps on his side-arm and goes back to work. Anymore, it seems the old motto “To serve and protect” only refers to one thing: their own asses.

  1. 1 ” We need to find a different solution” « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] want to hold people whose medical expenses they may incur. They don’t want a repeat of the Heather Wasson story, where if she had been diverted to a medical facility for treatment, she wouldn’t have died […]




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