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Health

Montana Inmate's Son Recounts Her Battle With COVID-19

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Jackie Yamanaka
/
Yellowstone Public Radio
Yellowstone County Detention Facility

Since the pandemic began, there’s been a steady back and forth in the criminal justice system about the health and safety of inmates.

Advocates fear that detention could become a death sentence if inmates contract COVID-19. Law enforcement officials say they have to weigh mass releases against public safety.

When a federal judge released Josie Sanchez Miller from federal custody late last month, it wasn’t because she finished her prison sentence.

"She couldn't even stand up one day. And that's when they took her to the emergency room and she ended up in ICU," says her son, Doug Dewitz.

Miller was so sick from COVID-19, her caretakers thought she was going to die. A federal judge set her free so she could talk with her family in her final hours. From a hospital in Billings, Montana, she was able to get a call out to Dewitz.

DD: She kind of was telling me goodbye. All she wanted to do is hear my voice and then she was done. And that, that I think was the first time that I probably even cried about any of this.

The last couple of years have been rough for Dewitz’s family. He’s lost a son, siblings, and his mother in law was diagnosed with terminal cancer days before his own mother fell ill. Dewitz says he gets through with the support of his wife.

He’s stayed close with his mom and visited her regularly before her arrest.

"I’ve always been around her, I've always supported her," Dewitz says. No matter how much trouble she's got in basically. And we've always just had a good relationship."

Miller was locked up in January on federal meth distribution charges. The 77 year old hasn’t had a trial or been convicted but a judge put her in pre-trial detention, because she has a rap sheet with multiple arrests.

After the pandemic touched off this spring, Miller requested a release due to her advanced age. But a federal judge declined, saying that Miller was still a threat to her community and her reasons for release weren’t compelling enough.

Charles Bolte: What would you say in response to people that say, you know, these people that are locked up are detained, just, they're just, they deserve what they get and they have to deal with that situation?

"I would tell them to give them a court date. My mom's never had a court date. She's just been in limbo," Dewitz says.

It took a life threatening situation for the court to change its mind.

According to the U.S. Marshals Service, District of Montana, Miller is the first federal hold in the state to be released due to COVID-19 complications. Her situation reflects the ongoing debate between advocacy groups and jailers across the country at a moment when COVID-19 cases in jails in Montana have been surging. Advocates are asking that more be done to protect inmates, because jails and prisons are ripe for outbreaks.

According to the New York Times, more than 180,000 people have been infected and more than 1,100 inmates and correctional officers have died in jails and prisons across the country.

Since late last month, four detention facilities in Montana have confirmed over 200 cases among inmates and staff.

According to KRTV.com, the Cascade County jail last month reported 66 cases. In an interview with Yellowstone Public Radio last week, the Yellowstone County jail commander reported over 60 cases. According to the state Department of Corrections website on Sept. 21, the Sanction Treatment Assessment Revocation & Transition facility in Anaconda reported 73 cases. And, KULR 8 last week reported 18 cases at a treatment center in Butte called Connections Corrections.

Courts and law enforcement argue that they have to weigh releases against public safety. Dewitz says he sees it both ways.

"Well, she has to pay for her crime, but they could have did it. You know, they, she didn't have to be incarcerated until they convict her of that crime," Dewitz says.

"It wasn't like she's a violent offender or anything."

He adds that her age should’ve been a bigger factor in all of this.

"I don't think the situation was fair. When all this pandemic hit, they should have been releasing some of these older people," he says.

As a federal inmate, Josie Miller was under U.S. Marshals custody, but held in county jails. The U.S. Marshals Office gets its guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as does the jail where Miller was being held when she tested positive for COVID-19.

Yellowstone County Jail Commander Roger Bodine says the facility is in good hands with a 24 hour medical staff.

"We do have medical providers here who are RNs and above taking care of these inmates. It is unfortunate if they contract it in here, but what we're doing is isolating and treating and everybody is recovering," Bodine says.

Bodine says his team is in close contact with the medical staff and works to keep up with the ever changing COVID guidelines. Bodine says the jail currently has isolation units, testing for symptomatic inmates, and inmates can get a mask if they want one.

"For those worried about their loved ones getting sick in here, we have ways to treat them and make sure that they recover. And if they don't, we send them to the hospital to get treated and, so they can recover," Bodine says.

When Josie Miller got sent to the hospital, the outlook was grim. But, after days on a breathing machine, Dewitz says his mom started to improve.

"She’s doing a lot better. She called me actually," he says. "She is just talking how she wants to go to her house and she wants to go get the dog. And that's basically all she was worried about."

Miller was discharged from the hospital on Sept. 14. Could she go back to detention after she fully recovers? That’s an unanswered question at the moment, there were no conditions of her release and no hearings have been set. In the end, it’ll be up to the courts to decide whether she can stay home or is locked up again before her trial.

For now, she’s picking life back up on the outside and catching up with family.

I ask her, "How does it feel to be home?"

"Well, the steps are kind of hard to get up and down, so, but other than that, I'm a little breathless, you know, and I still haven't gotten a doctor's appointment yet, but I'm working on that. So I need to go up and get some oxygen and stuff like that. But other than that, just a little breathless. That's about it," Miller says.

Doug says he’s been worried for his mom for months, but he’s happy to know she’s home.

"I just want her to be happy again, you know, or at least have something to look forward to," he says. "You know, I know everybody dies eventually, but nobody wants somebody to die tomorrow."