On the evening of Sunday, November 3, Woody Creek resident and frequent arrestee Jillian White, 64, took her own life while in custody at the Pitkin County jail. Suicides at such facilities are all-too-frequent occurrences in Colorado and beyond, and after they take place, officials mindful of potential lawsuits tend to be extremely cautious about their responses. But Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, whose office is in charge of the jail, speaks frankly about White's death and concedes that he and his colleagues are among those at fault for what happened.
"I think there's culpability on many levels here — not just on the part of me or the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office," DiSalvo acknowledges. "But I think we all recognize that this is an incredibly broken, deteriorating system."
He adds: "I realize what I'm saying is taking responsibility. But am I supposed to sit here and say 'No comment' when everybody knows something went wrong? Am I supposed to play that game? Say, 'No comment, you have to wait for the report'? That's just shining you guys on. And I think there's enough blame to go around. I'm not alone."
Denver attorney Jennifer Longtin, who represents White's family, declined to talk in detail about the case at this time. According to her, White's loved ones are still processing the terrible turn of events. But she did share a statement that echoes DiSalvo's observations about structural flaws in the way today's jails are run even as it divulges details of White's latest incarceration that make her death even more heartbreaking. It reads:
The tragic loss of Jillian White is a grim representation of the archaic system in place for dealing with the mentally ill in our judicial system. Weeks ago, the state was warned that Ms. White was deteriorating and that she needed an immediate transfer to the state mental health facility; despite this, the Department of Human Services failed to act. Ms. White spent over seventy days in the Pitkin County Jail, isolated, in a worsening mental state, awaiting transportation to the state hospital. Ms. White is now deceased 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 depths of sorrow, horror, anger, and loss that is felt by her family and legal team at this point is immeasurable. 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.
One thing not mentioned by Longtin: She reportedly filed a motion on November 1 asking that White be sent to a private in-patient facility owing to her mental state rather than waiting to be transported to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo — a process whose chronic delays have resulted in more than a decade's worth of court actions. (One mentally ill man spent eight months in jail for spitting on a police officer because a CMHI bed wasn't available for him.) However, White died before such a move could be completed.
White spent plenty of time at Pitkin County jail prior to her most recent detainment. In DiSalvo's words, "She had several head injuries with a side cocktail of mental illness and, basically, kleptomania. She stole shit."
Indeed, White's busts regularly made headlines in local newspapers during recent years. In April 2015, the Vail Daily noted that she'd been taken into custody for allegedly stealing a brown suede pullover valued at more than $4,000. Just over a year later, in July 2016, the paper revealed that she'd returned to stir regarding a dispute over a $291.20 restaurant bill. In January 2017, the Aspen Times noted her arrest for allegedly trying to swipe a pair of skis from a consignment shop and pointed out in May 2019 that she faced felony charges over accusations of intimidating a witness and stalking prompted by a DUI the previous January.
As such, DiSalvo points out, "Jillian was somebody we all knew. I think my first interaction with her was over twenty years ago, when I was still in uniform. Every deputy, everybody in the jail, was very familiar with Jillian."
Because of this background, White wasn't classified as a suicide risk. "I don't ever remember her being a danger to anybody else or to herself before Sunday," DiSalvo says.
Events like this one are hardly unique to Pitkin County jail. We recently reported that the August 4 death of 44-year-old Michael Courtney marked the third completed suicide at Boulder County jail in just over a year, and a fourth person who tried to take his own life during that period barely survived; he was found shortly after he hanged himself.
Moreover, a March 2016 post documented thirteen jail deaths in Colorado facilities during the previous year or so, with three suicides in Jefferson County jail, two in Denver County jail, and one apiece in Arapahoe and Rio Blanco county jails. And earlier this year, we reported on a lawsuit over the January 2016 suicide by inmate Dillon Blodgett at the Montrose County Detention Center. The Montrose jail was the setting for two additional suicides in each of the next two years: Robert Petersen in August 2017 and Clinton Mitchell in March 2018.
Dan Shaffer, the attorney representing Blodgett's family, said that his research suggests "a disproportionate number of in-custody deaths by suicide happen in rural jails because there's not enough mental health care to go around."
DiSalvo is frustrated that facilities like his often becoming dumping grounds for individuals whose conditions contributed to or caused their crimes. "It's like sending somebody with appendicitis to the jail. I don't see the difference. If we truly are a society trying to do something for people with mental illness and drug addiction, a jail is not the right place for them."
A lack of resources is a big reason for that, in DiSalvo's view. "Just three weeks ago, I did a budget presentation to our county commissioners," he allows, pointing to a 2020 Pitkin County budget proposal and five-year plan available at the bottom of this post. The requests made by the Sheriff's office included funding for a new jail deputy and an additional $188,846 to boost a $150,000 jail nursing contract. As he recalls, "I told our commissioners that our facility was failing and we needed more money because of it. And I was told, 'We don't have the money.'"
That left DiSalvo to deal with a distressing status quo. "I'm short-staffed, and I can't have eyes on every square inch of that facility. And now we've lost somebody."
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Expressing such frustrations in a public forum is rare for a person in DiSalvo's position, as he understands. "I realize I'm a lawyer's nightmare. But lying and being less than transparent isn't my role. I'm a pragmatic straight-shooter, and I would never lie to the people I work for, which is the 17,000 or 18,000 people of Pitkin County. Would you rather my comments come out now, or on the stand in a lawsuit three years from now? They're coming out one way or the other."
In the meantime, he has some definite ideas about how the Pitkin County jail could be improved in ways that might help prevent jail suicides and other related issues. "We have a facility that was built in 1984 for a different reason than what we're using it for now — and there's about 2,000 or so square feet that's currently not being used. I'd love to be innovative and make it, for the lack of a better term, a mental-health wing, where we could have people in that situation — where they could get regular psychiatric care and live under different conditions, and so they wouldn't be prey to violent offenders in the jail. I'd like to segregate them in a more humane facility."
Back in the 1960s, when DiSalvo was young, "there were state institutions in New York that were overflowing with the mentally ill, and the state couldn't afford it. So those institutions went away, and that's when our population of homeless and people living on the street went sky-high. They have to go somewhere, and a lot of times, they go to jail."
Click to read the proposed 2020 Pitkin County budget and five-year plan.