Missoula County recently agreed to pay the family of a mentally ill woman who hung herself with a phone cord while incarcerated at the Missoula County Detention Center $250,000 to settle allegations of jailer negligence.
“I think it’s going to create some positive changes,” says Missoula attorney Milt Datsopoulos, who represented the woman’s family. “This particular thing won’t happen again with the phone cords.”
The settlement marks the end of a legal controversy that began in April 2011, when 27-year-old Michayla Brilz killed herself in a detention center holding cell. Court documents indicate that Brilz had been treated for bipolar disorder. In the months leading up to her death, she was arrested for obstructing a police officer, resisting arrest and driving under the influence. In spring 2011, she was jailed after prosecutors alleged she paid a babysitter with prescription medication.
Datsopoulos argued that because Brilz had been previously incarcerated in the facility, jailers knew or should have known that she was unstable. Yet they left her unattended for 35 minutes.
The Brilz family isn’t alone in alleging negligence at the Missoula County Detention Center. The family of 31-year-old Heather Wasson filed a lawsuit against the county in 2011, two years after Wasson died in a jail cell from a seizure caused by acute alcohol withdrawals. That case is scheduled for an October trial.
Datsopoulos says he took the Brilz case on contingency because he wanted to call attention to deficiencies dealing with mentally ill and addicted inmates. He believes the settlement constitutes an acknowledgment by the county that it erred. “I believe in this case, they’ve taken a new step, which is, ‘We’ve got problems,’” Datsopoulos says. “‘And we’ve got to face the problems today.’”
The Missoula Board of County Commissioners oversees the detention center budget. Commission Chair Jean Curtiss says in recent years jailers have taken significant steps to better keep mentally ill and addicted inmates safe, including constructing a padded cell, installing additional security cameras and hiring case managers to help counsel unstable detainees.
Curtiss adds, however, that a lack of community services for people in crisis leaves the detention center in a difficult position. In the wake of the settlement, she says the county is evaluating ways to fill the gap by expanding community treatment options for mentally ill and addicted people because “(jail) isn’t the best place to deal with them.”
In March, the Independent reported on the four unnatural deaths that have occurred within the past five years at the Missoula County Detention Center.