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Missoula County Jail

A trend of more lenient furlough policies that began last summer at the Missoula County Detention Facility has been stopped by Missoula judges.

The decision came after a January incident where it’s believed an inmate who was let out on a temporary unescorted leave from the jail brought methamphetamine and opiates back with him.

On Jan. 19, inmates in one of the 24-person pods at the jail began behaving strangely, said Commander Jason Kowalski, who oversees the jail.

“We suspected right away and an inmate did inform us that he suspected that drugs were being used by other inmates in the pod,” Kowalski said.

That pod was put into lockdown and detention officers searched all of the cells but didn’t find any drugs. Tests on several of the inmates came back positive for methamphetamine and opiates.

“Many of the inmates refused to do the test and to us that indicates that there’s a likelihood they were going to test positive and they didn’t want to have those results out on paper,” Kowalski said.

One of the inmates in the pod had recently returned from a furlough that a judge granted to allow him to collect personal items from his landlord.

In the past, Kowalski said inmates could petition and be granted a leave from the jail for things like medical issues or family funerals, but they would be done with an escort by a detention officer. Around the middle of last summer, he said Missoula judges began allowing furloughs for a wider variety of reasons and unlike in the past, some were done without direct supervision.

“Those have never really been supported from a security and safety aspect from us,” Kowalski said of unescorted furloughs. “Once an inmate leaves our facility, it’s wide open again for someone to do something bad.”

After the January incident, a deputy came and spoke with several of the inmates who were housed in the pod but wasn’t able to gather enough evidence to request charges be filed.

“It’s the orange code we call it. They don’t want to be labeled as snitches, they don’t want to have anything to do with telling on their buddies,” Kowalski said. “Without true drugs in hand, deputies aren’t able to hold charges or anything like that.”

He said it’s possible the drugs were brought in by an inmate housed in a different area of the jail, as they share the same recreation area. Fewer than half a dozen inmates had been out on an unescorted furlough in the period immediately before the incident.

“It’s very hard for us to screen for those inmates coming back in if they’ve hidden it properly, and by properly I mean my guess is they’ve tied it in a balloon, put some drugs in a balloon and swallowed it and it’s in their stomach,” Kowalski said. “An hour before they come back to jail they swallow it, there’s no way for us do that in a general pat down.”

After the January incident, Kowalski said he explained the safety risks that furloughs without an officer escort created for the jail to Missoula County District Court judges. In addition to inmates who might try to sneak drugs in for their own use, he said there also could be a situation where inmates who learn that someone is about to be furloughed will threaten them or conspire with them to bring drugs back in.

“We really can’t stop the inmate that swallows something, gets it in their stomach where we can’t see it, can’t feel it, can’t detect it,” he said. “They kind of understood our situation at that point.”

Since the discussion with the judges, no unescorted furloughs have been granted, Kowalski said.

District Court Judge John Larson said historically, he has seen furloughs as something to be used for medical situations involving an inmate.

He said he sent a note to the other district court judges after hearing from the jail, and thinks that generally they all appreciate the safety risks that come up when an inmate is let out without proper supervision.

“It wasn’t just the one incident. It was a situation where we saw a pattern of people returning from furloughs with issues,” he said.

Larson said he hasn’t approved any unescorted furlough requests since that point, but said it’s possible a situation will come up in the future where one is issued.

Kowalski said since the incident, they have reminded all detention staff of the importance of making sure routine checks at the jail are conducted thoroughly, and said if future unescorted furloughs are granted, the jail plans to hold an inmate in an isolated cell with video surveillance for a few days when they return.

“That’s just what we have to do, we have to respond to those types of situations,” Kowalski said. “I think it caught us off guard for the moment because it is something new to us.”

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.