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As we prepared this week’s cover package on the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, sorting through a big box of DVDs, our to-view pile got an unexpected addition. It was another DVD, in a clear plastic case, labeled “blocked face,” and it was delivered by our lawyer. We’d asked for it, and paid him to figure out how to get it, but it wasn’t something we really wanted to see.

It was July 2006 when we were leaked an internal report describing a guard’s gun-fired pepperball assault on a locked-up female inmate in the Missoula County Detention Center. Another guard, Mike Burch, leaked the same report to the Missoulian. Both papers wrote stories. Burch got threatened with prosecution, then fired. Sheriff Mike McMeekin said he was satisfied with his shooter’s actions. County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg squirmed.

The incident was recorded on camera.

The Indy and the Missoulian requested copies of the recording. Eventually our lawyer was able to negotiate with the inmate’s lawyer to waive her client’s claim to privacy. The stipulation was that the woman’s face would be blocked out with a black square. Thus “blocked face.”

It’s reality TV alright. She’s locked in a cell alone, wailing and crying, loudly, but posing no apparent threat to anything. A guard, calling her ma’am, tells her two times to get on her bunk. She’s screaming all the while. The second time he adds “or force will be used against you.” Two seconds later he shoots six rounds of pepperball capsules at her torso in rapid succession. She staggers and falls and screams some more. Ten seconds later—during which time the officer yells louder still to lie on the bunk—he fires three more rounds at the wall near her head. That shuts her up. It appears to have been painful. It does not appear to have been strictly necessary.

Afterward they strap her into a restraint chair with seatbelts and roll her away. She’s crying, not resisting in the slightest. “I want my daddy,” she wails. “Why do people kill people for nothing?” Who knows what that means.

She was allowed to shower off nine rounds of capsicum powder 44 minutes later, after the tape ends, according to the guard’s report of the incident.

Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, in this week of nonfiction film, “blocked face,” real as it is, doesn’t prove anything, in a legal sense, about the appropriateness of the guard’s actions. You’d have to know sheriff’s office policy, and it’s not that specific anyway. You’d have to know how the guard was trained, and we don’t. You’d have to be in his shoes, and we aren’t.

For all we can tell, this is standard operating procedure.

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