Jailhouse blues

Could deaths like Heather Wasson's be prevented?



When 31-year-old Heather Holly Wasson was booked into the Missoula County Detention Facility June 18, 2009, she told guards that she didn't want to miss her son's birthday that week. "She just kept saying that she wanted to get out of there, that she didn't belong there," detention officer Tonia Turner told law enforcement days later.

Roughly 40 hours after the Montana native entered the detention center, she died from cardiac arrest triggered by acute alcohol withdrawal. Last month, her family filed a lawsuit alleging that Missoula County and detention center contractor Spectrum Medical Services were negligent because they failed to adequately treat Wasson. "They knew or had reason to know that she was at risk for severe alcohol/drug withdrawal," states the complaint filed May 9 in Missoula's Fourth Judicial District Court.

In 2009, Wasson was on probation for a 2004 forgery, drug possession, and theft conviction when Missoula Police arrested her for failure to comply with the terms of her release, because she'd failed to check in with her probation officer. The probation officer also suspected Wasson was under the influence of alcohol, additionally violating the terms of her release.

Law enforcement records indicate that while Wasson was being booked into the detention center, she was combative, kicking and screaming. She told guards that for a week and a half she'd been drinking a lot of vodka and wine. She was taking large amounts of anti-anxiety medication and the anti-depressant Effexor. Wasson said she felt suicidal. She told guards that she had epilepsy and in the past experienced delirium tremens, or severe withdrawal symptoms, when she stopped consuming alcohol.

Because of her combativeness and the fact that she was taking mood-altering medication, Wasson was housed in the detention center's high-security block. According to interviews with county staffers, jailers were providing half of one milligram of the anti-anxiety medication Xanax twice daily to offset withdrawal. Wasson seemed fine June 19, the day after her arrest, according to detention center staffers. But that evening at 7:53—roughly 12 minutes after a guard checked on Wasson—a video surveillance camera in her cell records the blonde having what appears to be a seizure. Her right arm stiffens and becomes rigid. The movement-activated camera then shuts off. When officers checked on Wasson at roughly 9 p.m., she had no pulse. She was pronounced dead at St. Patrick Hospital at 9:44 p.m.


There was a nearly one-hour-and-20-minute lapse between the time the guard checked on Wasson and the time he found her unresponsive. The family notes that lapse in its lawsuit, saying the defendants were negligent in "failing to make cell checks of Heather, and to provide adequately for her safety."

According to testimony from Judy Munsell, a nurse practitioner employed by Spectrum, Wasson displayed no visible signs of withdrawal prior to the seizure. It's unfortunate, says Missoula County Risk Manager Hal Luttschwager. But Wasson's death was impossible to predict. "There wasn't anything we could do to prevent it...It's just a sad deal."

There are a lot of inmates like Wasson incarcerated nationally. According to the National Center for Substance abuse at Columbia University, of the 2.3 million inmates in U.S. prisons, 65 percent—about 1.5 million—may be addicts.

As people with chemical dependencies flood prisons and detention facilities, jailers in Montana and across the country are defending themselves against allegations like those lodged by Wasson's family. In May, 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 Montana, 18-year-old Allen John Long Soldier Jr. died from the effects of detoxifying from alcohol consumption while detained by Hill County Jail in November 2009. A jury that convened for a post-mortem inquest cleared Hill County of negligence in Long Soldier's death. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana settled a case in April that alleged Lake County Detention Facility wrongfully withheld opiate addiction medication from a pregnant woman incarcerated for traffic violations. The ACLU asserted Lake County's actions jeopardized the woman's health and the viability of her pregnancy. Lake County denied wrongdoing in that case, but agreed to create a new treatment policy for pregnant inmates with opiate dependencies.

Dr. Louis Baxter Sr., the former president of American Society of Addiction Medicine and a board member of the National Association of Drug Court Profes-sionals, says cases like these stem from spotty addiction treatment protocols in detention centers and prisons: "We have quite a ways to go...There's no uniformity."

As jailers, administrators, and citizens mull this issue, Baxter says it's important to remember that addiction is a sickness just like hypertension and diabetes. "We need to be able to take care of inmates who have chronic medical illnesses," he says. "Too often it appears that when inmates have drug and alcohol problems, it's looked at as part of their bad behavior, as opposed to being a medical condition."

Addiction and withdrawal symptoms can be treated. Librium often alleviates the delirium tremens responsible for Wasson's death, says Baxter, who's working with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals to streamline national addiction treatment protocols for criminals. Doctors know how to treat addiction, Baxter says; the problem is jails too often don't incorporate the best science.

Luttschwager says he recently reviewed detention center video footage recorded just prior to Wasson's death. He's confident county staffers fulfilled their responsibilities. "I'm more than happy to let this go to a jury," he says. "The county was not responsible for her death."

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