GREAT FALLS — On Saturday, September 3rd, 2022, Aleesha Mae Kempa was found dead in her cell at the Cascade County Detention Center.
Lifesaving measures were conducted to save Kempa's life, to no avail. Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said that the initial investigation shows that Kempa died by suicide.
The Montana Division of Criminal Investigation was called in to investigate and Richard Brown of Petroleum County was called in as the coroner due to it being an in-custody death.
Slaughter said dealing with mental health issues presents a challenge: “We are not a Warm Springs or a facility like that that is equipped to deal with people suffering from mental issues."
Slaughter says while the jail has protocols in place for people they know have mental health issues, sometimes they don’t know about the specific issues a given inmate may have.
"One of the biggest issues we face is what is called co-concurring symptoms.” said Slaughter. “They’re suffering from their chemical dependency and their mental health issues simultaneously. Until they get clean and sober in detox, you don’t understand what their underlying mental health issues are.”
Kempa had a documented history of mental illness. Kempa’s record included burglary and kidnapping.
At the time of her death, she was being held the Cascade County Detention Center after an arrest for felony theft. She was awaiting transport to the Montana State Hospital after a commitment order was signed by a judge on August 29th.
While Slaughter declined to comment on the ongoing investigation to the matter, he did say his staff did everything they could.
Slaughter says his team undergoes crisis intervention training to help recognize mental health issues.
“These are deputy sheriffs, sometimes with only a high school diploma,” said Slaughter. “Some of them have college, but they’re not mental health professionals. We’re trying to get into the crisis management team system where we are bringing those people out in the field with us and we’re also bringing them into the jail.”
Even with the training, Slaughter says a detention center staff shortage and lack of state mental health facilities make the challenges greater.
“It’s not enough. It’s just simply not enough,” said Slaughter. “There’s always going to be people you can’t get to in time. I mean it only takes a few moments for someone to commit the ultimate act.”
Slaughter says an upcoming public safety levy will include pre-trial services which could help in preventing an incident like Kempa’s from happening again.
“Pre-trial service would likely keep a person who’s suffering from a mental illness out of the facility. It would put them on a SCRAM monitoring bracelet and keep them in the community, going to their appointments and getting treatment. Then assuring they’re not abusing a substance because they’d have a scram bracelet on them,” said Slaughter. “We do need to create other alternatives, I’m very aware of it. The jail is not the appropriate place for people suffering from mental illness.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 immediately.
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