No place to die 

Four Missoula County inmates have died of unnatural causes within the last five years. The reasons why may extend beyond the jail.

Michayla Brilz arrived at the Missoula County Detention Center on a busy Tuesday night, April 26, 2011. It wasn't the 27-year-old's first time in jail. Over the previous two years, she'd been charged for, among other things, resisting arrest and driving under the influence. Now, she was booked for allegedly paying a babysitter with sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication, and violating the terms of her previous release.

Detention Center Supervisor Luke Johnson was working the booking desk alone when Brilz arrived around 10 p.m., so he asked Officer Debra Ann Reiner to place Brilz in a holding cell until he had a chance to admit her into the facility. Reiner put Brilz in Holding Cell C and told her it would be just a few minutes before someone retrieved her.

Thirty-five minutes later, Reiner returned to find Brilz seated and unconscious on the holding cell floor with a payphone cord wrapped around her neck. She did not regain consciousness. Paramedics transported Brilz to St. Patrick Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 11:10 p.m.

Last month, nearly three years after Brilz's death, her family entered formal negotiations with Missoula County to settle allegations of jailer negligence.

During interviews prior to the confidential settlement talks, family attorney Milt Datsopoulos alleged that guards failed to follow commonly accepted guidelines when handling Brilz. The detention center didn't screen her for mental illness prior to placing her in the cell alone with the means to harm herself. She had been in the facility before, and Datsopoulos believes staff knew or should have known that she was unstable. Why didn't they keep a closer watch?

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"They violated national standards and criteria as it relates to protecting the rights and ensuring the reasonable safety of people who are incarcerated," Datsopoulos says.

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 alone in a jail cell from a seizure caused by acute alcohol withdrawals.

In fact, within the past five years, four inmates have died from unnatural causes at the facility. In 2010, Jay Brian Johnson hung himself with jail-issue socks. In 2013, Danny Wayne Johnston tied towels together to hang and asphyxiate himself.

Datsopoulos took the Brilz case because he wants jailers to be held accountable and do a better job preventing suicides. Since founding his Missoula law practice 45 years ago, Datsopoulos has represented a steady stream of defendants like Brilz, people who are mentally ill and addicted. It troubles him that rather than receiving intensive treatment, they are locked up and largely forgotten. "It's a shameful thing," Datsopoulos says.

Armed with constitutional principles that require jailers to ensure a minimum standard of safety, Datsopoulos wants to change the system. When making his case, he acknowledges the conversation surrounding how to help people like Brilz and Wasson is at times challenging and uncomfortable. But he believes that discomfort helps fuel a tendency to dismiss their suicides as inconsequential. In light of the sprawling human and financial costs associated with inmate deaths, Datsopoulos says it's incumbent upon lawmakers to overhaul the system. And, in his experience, Datsopoulos says the only way to force policymakers to fix something is to hit them where it hurts: the wallet.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"Otherwise, there's a story or two on it," he says. "The person in charge gets up and denies almost everything. And people say, 'Well, what the hell? This was somebody that obviously was a throwaway person, or they wouldn't be in jail. Let's don't worry about it. We've got other things to worry about.' What disturbs me is that these people aren't afforded serious consideration by the legal system, unless what occurred is pushed, and people are forced to look at the reality of what occurred, why it occurred, but more importantly, how easily it could have been avoided."




In spring 2011, Michayla Brilz felt the world was closing in. There was never enough money. Her moods turned erratic. She angered easily and clashed with the people around her. Even seemingly mundane tasks became increasingly difficult.

Court records indicate that Brilz had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking Zoloft. She was especially anxious about her children. Two years earlier, she and her ex-husband painstakingly carved out custody arrangements. She'd get their two kids, then ages 7 and 4, on Mother's Day, her birthday and two nights a week. He would have them the rest of the time.

Brilz's drug and alcohol use jeopardized her relationship with her son and daughter entirely. In January 2010, she was found guilty of obstructing a police officer and resisting arrest. Eleven months later, Brilz pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia. Brilz was on misdemeanor probation for driving under the influence in March 2011 when Missoula County prosecutors alleged that she paid a babysitter with drugs.

On April 26, 2011, when law enforcement came to take Brilz into custody for violating the terms of her probation, she refused to answer the door. University of Montana Public Safety Officer Casey Gunter testified during the Brilz inquest that after the woman finally let him into her apartment in the Lewis and Clark student housing complex, she asked them if they had children. She also asked, Gunter said, why they "weren't out arresting larger criminals than herself."

Detention center guards testified that once Brilz arrived to the jail, she was calm and coherent. She asked for her eyeglasses and talked about working to get her kids back. Officer Reiner, the guard who placed Brilz in the holding cell, encouraged Brilz to stay positive.

"I gave her a little hope and said, 'Well, that gives you something to look forward to when you get out. You'll see the judge tomorrow, and you'll be fine,'" Reiner testified.

Brilz's autopsy found nicotine, caffeine and sertraline, Zoloft's active ingredient, in her body. Her blood-alcohol content was .20, almost two-and-a-half times the legal limit.

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