No changes at Missoula County jail, despite inmate's 2009 death

There have been no changes in policy and no one has been disciplined or fired at the Missoula County jail, despite the 2009 death of Heather Holly Wasson, who died in a seizure brought on by alcohol withdrawal about 36 hours after she was jailed for a probation violation.

So said Barbara Roderick, the Missoula jail's assistant commander, following a recent court ruling that found the jail partially responsible for Wasson's death and awarded her estate $565,500.

According to the attorney for the estate, Cliff Edwards, Wasson admitted that she had been drinking and answered a questionnaire about her substance abuse upon being booked into the detention center.

In addition, she also acknowledged a potential for withdrawal problems and threatened suicide, Edwards said.

With such a potential for self harm, jail staff was supposed to check on the woman every 30 minutes, but officers didn't respond for an hour and 19 minutes after she started seizing. The beginning of the fatal seizure was caught on video camera.

A coroner's inquiry at the time found there was nothing criminal about her death, but Edwards claims county officials, specifically a jailer, lied by presenting an edited version of the 36 hours of video at the inquest and denying Wasson complained of nausea and withdrawal.

In the full video, Wasson complained about her withdrawal symptoms.

Capt. Jason Kowalski, who was present for last month's jury trial in Missoula District Court, wasn't able to comment for the story.

But Roderick, who wasn't present for the coroner's inquiry or the trial, tells a slightly different tale. She said the district judge wouldn't allow some of the evidence to be presented at trial, so jurors received a distorted picture of the facts.

"She talked fine with staff," Roderick said. "She was able to get her medication, come down for meals. She walked the stairs just fine. There was no indication that she was sick."

Roderick points out that jail officers aren't trained medical personnel and aren't equipped to deal with serious medical issues. They also aren't trained to detect the signs of someone who is going through withdrawals or to know what drugs an inmate may have taken.

"The thing the jail was guilty of was being overworked and under-staffed," Roderick said. "From a taxpayer standpoint, why can't they look at the whole picture? These are great officers here, but ... we are not a hospital. We need a detox center."

"(Inmates) need to be completely detoxed before coming to the jail," she added.

The jail's medical provider, Spectrum Medical, and Wasson's family settled two weeks ago, awarding the family $150,000, Roderick said. The jail has a new medical provider, Correctional Health Partnership, but Roderick said the change had nothing to do with the lawsuit.

Roderick and Sheriff Carl Ibsen also stated in interviews with the Missoulian that the jail was run by a different administration in 2009 - to be specific Sheriff Mike McMeekin and Capt. Susan Hintz - and since Ibsen took over nearly four years ago, things have changed.

Ibsen explained he has been examining polices and altering "policies of all sorts," but couldn't give any specific examples about jail policies that he has changed.

In addition, Ibsen said the jail guard who was on duty when Wasson died hasn't been disciplined because he needs to investigate the allegations of negligence that caused Wasson's death.

"First of all, I am going to have to look into it and see if there is any veracity to it," the sheriff said.


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