Thomas Corbisiero walked into the Ravalli County Adult Detention Center on Aug. 9. Four days later, he was taken from the jail in an ambulance with two fractured neck vertebrae and failing kidneys. Witnesses, including the Hamilton Police Department officers who arrested Corbisiero, say he was in good condition when taken into custody. What happened between that time and his trip to the hospital is a mystery Corbisiero and his family are now working to solve.
“I remember getting booked,” Corbisiero says. “After that, I kind of went blank.”
What is clear is that Hamilton Police arrested Corbisiero Aug. 9 on a warrant for failing to comply with the terms of his release for a June charge of driving under the influence. Hamilton Police Chief Ryan Oster says he’s reviewed video footage from the arrest, and Corbisiero appeared to be in good health.
“He was walking and talking and had no visible signs of injury,” Oster says. “He was moving his head. ... He had not been involved in any physical altercation that we’re aware of.”
Four days later, Corbisiero was loaded into a Life Flight helicopter at Hamilton’s Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital en route to Seattle’s Harbor View Medical Center, where he would remain for eight days. Doctors in Seattle diagnosed him with two fractured cervical vertebrae, kidney failure and “muscle breakdown,” says Thomas’ aunt, Jean Corbisiero, who’s been working to figure out what happened to her nephew from her Georgia home.
Corbisiero admits he’s an alcoholic. The 36-year-old Georgia native has been in trouble with law enforcement before, including a 2009 incident where he was charged in his home state with criminal damage to property and trespass. A year later, Georgia police charged him with driving under the influence.
Despite his criminal record, Corbisiero’s friends and family say he’s not violent. Oster also says Corbisiero “was very polite to the officer.”
For his part, Corbisiero says he only has blurry memories of his time in jail. He knew he was being detained, but didn’t know where he was. He says he’s had blackouts before, but nothing like this and never one that lasted four days.
After speaking with detention center staff, Jean believes her nephew went into alcohol withdrawal. Muscle breakdown results from multiple causes, including injury, excessive alcohol consumption and extended periods of inactivity. Jean says doctors surmise that when Thomas’ muscles began to fail, toxins entered his bloodstream and overwhelmed his kidneys. She blames jail staff for allowing Thomas’ health to worsen, rather than providing him sufficient medical help. “At the least, they failed to render aid,” she says.
Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman, who is in charge of the jail, vehemently denies that Corbisiero was injured under his watch. He says his staff consistently works to ensure prisoners are properly cared for, despite often challenging circumstances.
“This guy came to us in the shape he was in,” Hoffman says. “We didn’t cause it.”
This isn’t the first time Ravalli jailers have been accused of failing to adequately care for inmates. During an 18-month period in 2004 and 2005, four Ravalli County jail detainees killed themselves. Three of the inmates’ families filed lawsuits arguing the suicides could have been prevented with proper supervision. Hoffman says all three lawsuits were settled out of court for undisclosed amounts of money.
The threat of lawsuits provides additional incentive for guards and administrators to provide adequate care. Since 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court has increasingly found that jailers must protect detainees from others and themselves. Ignoring that mandate constitutes a violation of prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
In February, the city of St. Louis paid $10,000 to settle claims brought by the family of a heroin-addicted inmate who died of withdrawals two days after being booked into that city’s jail. A medical contractor charged with providing services to the facility also paid an undisclosed amount of money. In 2011, New York City agreed to pay $2 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of a postal worker who died in jail because his alcohol withdrawal symptoms went untreated.
In Missoula, 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. That case is slated for an October trial.
Hoffman notes that much has changed at the Ravalli County Adult Detention Center since the series of suicides a decade ago. For example, the jail now contracts with an outside company, Spectrum Medical, to provide on-site health care. It also increased officer training and hired a mental health provider, who is on-call for emergencies.
“We go over the top,” Hoffman says. “We do not ignore inmates’ medical issues.”
Unsatisfied with Hoffman’s response and seeking definitive answers, Corbisiero’s family is asking Ravalli County to release video footage of Thomas’ time at the detention center. The Independent has also requested the footage. As of press time, Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright had failed to respond to multiple Independent requests to release the film.
Frustrated, Jean Corbisiero says she’s contacted the Montana ACLU, Gov. Steve Bullock’s office and members of Montana’s congressional delegation and asked them to help facilitate an investigation into what happened to her nephew. The family is also working to secure legal counsel.
“Somebody’s got to stand up and say, ‘This don’t need to happen,’” Jean says.
Meanwhile, Thomas is recovering at his sister’s house in Walla Walla, Wash.