Phillip Dupaul says he thinks the "COVID scare" is exaggerated. But he was pretty unnerved on Monday when the other inmates in his holding cell at the Cascade County Detention Center began laughing, loudly, at the irony when he told them a judge threw him in jail for not wearing a mask. The inmates told him they had all been exposed to one inmate who had the virus. Hours later, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter would announce a 55-person outbreak at the jail.
Dupaul, 60, refused to wear a mask when he arrived at a Great Falls motel conference center for jury duty on Monday and was ordered to jail. At the same time Dupaul was being booked into the facility, county law enforcement was learning the extent of the outbreak — the worst of any detention center in the state. Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter on Friday issued a press release criticizing the judge for ordering Dupaul to jail while the facility was suffering an outbreak, but did not mention in the statement that jail officials placed Dupaul in general population, rather than in isolation.
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Dupaul, meanwhile, argues the judge did not have the authority to jail him and said law enforcement was "wrong" to put him in jail with those who may have been infected.
Reached by phone on Friday, Dupaul said he had a "scratchy throat," but hoped it was only the air quality during wildfire season. Dupaul also told the Missoulian he believed Gov. Steve Bullock's mask mandate issued in July expired in 30 days. In fact, the mask directive states clearly in its language that it expires at the end of the state of emergency. A spokeswoman with the governor's office said Friday Montana's state of emergency is tied to the national emergency, and will end once the national emergency does.
Calls to Slaughter's office were not immediately returned Friday, nor were calls to Missoula District Court Judge John Larson, who held Dupaul in contempt of court for refusing to wear a mask.
Dupaul had shown up for jury duty that morning but refused to a wear a mask because he said it hampers his ability to breathe. Judge Larson, presiding over the trial as a substitute for a local judge, gave him three options: wear a mask, wear a shield, or be held in contempt of court and spend 24 hours in jail.
"The judge started saying that this wasn't for my safety, it's for everyone's safety," Dupaul said in a phone interview on Friday. "I said that's fine, but I couldn't wear a mask and I told him it was hard for me to breathe. … I said he didn't have the authority to make me do it, and he seemed to get agitated at that point and said he would put me in jail for 24 hours to think about it."
Officials at the Cascade County Detention Center had announced on Aug. 21, three days earlier, that an inmate had tested positive for the coronavirus. Dupaul said he was booked into jail at 9:15 a.m., and at that point knew only of the one confirmed case. By the end of the day, Cascade County Sheriff Slaughter revealed the jail had tallied 55 cases, 53 inmates and two staff members. Dupaul, at the time, was holed up in the same area with roughly 40 people, he said.
"Inmates are always curious at what the new guy is being detained for, and I told them, 'For not wearing a mask,'" Dupaul said. "The whole cell block started laughing, loudly, and they said 'Don't they know that we have all been infected. We have all been in contact with that guy.'"
None of the inmates in his block were wearing masks, Dupaul said.
When Dupaul was released 24 hours later, his wife picked up him. His work entails cleaning properties for elderly folk who aren't physically able to do it themselves.
"What do I do now?" Dupaul said. "I can't go into peoples' homes."
Cascade County's criminal justice arena has been brewing its own COVID-19-related hostility since the onset of the pandemic. State prison officials sued a District Court judge there in April when the judge ordered state inmates be transferred out of the overcrowded jail and to state facilities, challenging the prison's own decision to halt inmate transfers between facilities to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the prison officials, and Cascade County judges worked to reduce the population where they could. Slaughter was public about his intent not to jail people over mask use, or lack of it.
In the Friday release, Slaughter described the mask order as "highly contentious and debatable" and said he had worked with the local judiciary to ensure no one would be sent to jail for refusing to wear a mask in a court setting.
"What I failed to anticipate was that an out-of-town judge from Missoula would not respect my concerns or the values of the people in Cascade County," Slaughter, elected sheriff in 2018, said in the press release. "Judge Larson is not accountable to the citizens of Cascade County, he felt he could do whatever he wanted. Judge Larson sentenced Phillip to jail for contempt of court because he refused to wear a mask, potentially exposing him to COVID at the Cascade County Detention Center."
He apologized in the release to Dupaul, and said Dupaul had "shown grace" and accepted the apology.
"I am truly sorry for what happened to Phillip Dupaul under my watch," Slaughter said in the release. "This was not justice of any kind; this was a judge who used very poor judgement in our community."
Dupaul confirmed he had spoken with the sheriff, and told the Missoulian he took the sheriff at his word in saying he didn't know Dupaul was being held in general population, rather than isolation, while jail officials were becoming aware of a major outbreak in the facility.
Still, Dupaul repeatedly used the word "negligence" in describing the judge's and local law enforcement's handling of his mask refusal. Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki told the Great Falls Tribune on Friday that Title III in Montana Code Annotated gives the judge power to completely control the court room, and to hold those who dispute the judge in contempt of court.
"As far as the deputies, they were very professional with me," Dupaul said. "They were simply following procedure of what they were supposed to do. … But they put me in a position where I could be infected, and that's wrong. They could have left me in the booking area, and I would have sat out my sentence there. But to put me into a Petri dish — that's what it was, a Petri dish of active COVID cases, that was negligent — that was wrong."
Dupaul refutes any personal responsibility. He said he hasn't worn a mask since the beginning of the pandemic, but said he's kept his distance from high-risk people since COVID-19 hit Montana. He also does not have a specific medical condition that would warrant exemption from the mask mandate, he told the Missoulian, but does feel that the mask hinders his breathing.
"I think that's enough of a circumstance," he said.
Still, Dupaul makes one point clear: he was ordered to jail for 24 hours. What he got instead, by extension of that stint in the jail, was a two-week sentence; he's holding himself under a 14-day quarantine.