The family of the woman found dead from an apparent suicide in her Pitkin County Jail cell Sunday evening is still reeling.
“The depths of sorrow, horror, anger and loss that is felt by her family and legal team at this point is immeasurable,” they expressed through a statement released by Jillian White’s Denver-based attorney, Jennifer Longtin.
Any death in a family is an emotional hardship for those surviving the deceased, but in White’s case, there’s an added anguish because she was a casualty of a broken system, Longtin said Tuesday — and her clients’ statement reflects that sentiment.
“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,” it reads. “Ms. White spent over 70 days in the Pitkin County Jail, isolated, in a worsening mental state, awaiting transportation to the state hospital.”
White, 64, was not on suicide watch, though she was awaiting in-patient services from the state-run Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, or CMHIP, per District Judge Chris Seldin’s orders after she was found incompetent to stand trial in August.
“We are deeply saddened to hear of the tragic death of Ms. White,” said Colorado Department of Human Services Communications Director Mark Techmeyer in an emailed statement. “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 used an extension cord left in her cell from the previous inmate’s stay to hang herself Sunday evening, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said. That inmate required the use of an oxygenator, and the extension cord had been left in the cell. He acknowledged that the circumstances that allowed for her apparent suicide should not have existed in the first place. Coroner Steve Ayers estimates his office’s cause of death investigation will take at least another six weeks.
“She was able to get an extension cord, which frankly shouldn’t have been where it was and was missed on checks,” Disalvo said Monday. “I’ll take some of the blame. She was in my custody, and it was my job to protect her, and we couldn’t.”
White’s family’s statement agrees with that assessment, although most criticisms are reserved for the state, not the county.
“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 death of Jillian White could have been prevented. Jill should have been safe in the jail,” it reads. “This is a complete failure of our state to separate the continually entangled mental health and criminal justice systems.”
On Friday, Longtin filed a motion with Pitkin County Court requesting her client be released to a private mental health facility able to accommodate White’s needs. White was scheduled for a court appearance on Monday’s docket — although even if Seldin and Deputy District Attorney Don Nottingham had agreed to the request, another, separate case in Eagle County would have required that court to agree to that resolution, as well.
A 2012 lawsuit filed by the Denver-based nonprofit Disability Law Colorado against CMHIP claimed the hospital violated incompetent inmates’ constitutional rights by elongating their time in jail due to months-long wait times for competency restoration treatment at the facility. That lawsuit, for which a consent decree was signed in March of this year, inspired two state laws: Senate Bills 222 and 223.
SB 222, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law in May, requires that CMHIP and a state-run facility in Fort Logan prioritize taking in patients based on need rather than chronological order of cases. Additionally, it requires the Department of Human Services “develop a comprehensive proposal to strengthen and expand the safety net system that provides behavioral health services for individuals with severe behavioral health disorders” and “develop an implementation plan to increase the number of treatment programs in the state,” according to the Colorado General Assembly website.
The problem for inmates waiting for services now, however, is that SB 222 doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2024. SB 223, which revamps the criminal justice processing system for cases involving incompetent defendants, becomes reality Jan. 1, 2020.
Until then, hundreds of thousands of inmates facing nonviolent crimes are waiting for restoration services throughout the state. And until Sunday evening, White was one of them after more than a decade of run-ins with the law for theft and driving under the influence. What happens next is still unknown.
“The family is still grieving tonight, so we have no further comments,” Longtin said Tuesday.