Pitkin County Sheriff: Cord used in jail suicide ‘shouldn’t have been there’
The extension cord used by a Woody Creek woman to hang herself in the Pitkin County Jail was left over from a previous inmate and should not have been in her cell, Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said Tuesday.
“We did something wrong” DiSalvo said. “What’s wrong with saying that? Let the chips fall where they may. This cord shouldn’t have been there.
“I got no defense.”
Jillian White, 64, was found dead in her cell Sunday evening. White, who’d been arrested multiple times for theft, drunken driving and other charges over the last decade, had been found incompetent to stand trial and was awaiting an appointment at the state psychiatric hospital in Pueblo or a private facility to restore her to competency.
On Tuesday, White’s lawyers and family blasted the Colorado judicial system’s treatment of the mentally ill and said state officials had been told about White’s “worsening mental state” while she was imprisoned in Pitkin County for more than 70 days.
“Weeks ago, the state was warned that Ms. White was deteriorating and that she needed an immediate transfer to the state mental health facility,” according to the statement from lawyers Jennifer Longtin of Denver and Eric Franz of New York City. “Despite this, the Department of Human Services failed to act.”
White is dead “due to the lack of supervision and care which is required for those suffering from mental illness, care that no jail is equipped to provide,” the statement says.
Wait times for a competency or sanity evaluations at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo have been an issue for years. Those waiting for the evaluations routinely spend months and months waiting to be transferred to Pueblo for appointments with state psychiatrists. A defendant currently awaiting trial in the Pitkin County Jail waited 14 months for a sanity evaluation.
“The depths of sorrow, horror, anger and loss that is felt by her family and legal team at this point is immeasurable,” according to the statement. “The death of Jillian White could have been prevented. Jill should have been safe in the jail.
“This is a complete failure of our state to separate the continually entangled mental health and criminal justice systems.”
In a statement Tuesday, a Department of Human Services official declined to comment specifically on White’s case.
“We are deeply saddened to hear of the tragic death of Ms. White,” according to the statement from spokesperson Mark Techmeyer. “We cannot comment on the specifics, but the Department continues to be committed to improving the competency system to better serve Coloradans living with a mental health disorder.”
White was last seen by jail deputies making a phone call between 15 and 30 minutes before she was found dead in her cell, DiSalvo said Monday. On Tuesday, he said her final call was to her mother.
Burchetta said White had not displayed any suicidal behavior prior to her body being found, and was not on suicide watch.
The short extension cord in her cell was there because a previous inmate, who needed oxygen, used the cord to plug in an oxygenator, DiSalvo said. When the inmate moved out of the cell, the short extension cord remained and White moved in, he said. The sheriff said he thought a television might have been plugged into the extension cord.
“We should not have an unsecured cord in the jail,” DiSalvo said. “I guess somebody’s gotta start saying that.”
However, he said he didn’t think the fact that the cord was left out would lead to punitive measures for any jail deputies.
“I’m not sure it rises to the level of discipline,” DiSalvo said. “But we’re talking about it.”
Two deputies who were placed on administrative leave with pay after White was found were allowed back to work Tuesday morning, said Alex Burchetta, chief deputy of operations. DiSalvo said their return to work indicates their mental health is good and that “there’s no reason to put them on punitive leave at this point.”
Officials from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation have been called in to offer guidance in the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation into White’s death, DiSalvo said. They will act as a backstop and offer suggestions, he said.
Longtin said she filed a motion Friday stating that she’d found a private facility that could restore White’s competency and allow her current legal cases to proceed. She declined to comment further.
DiSalvo said he expects White’s death to be the subject of a civil lawsuit.
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