Left in limbo, hundreds of Minnesotans with mental illness languish in jail

Hundreds of inmates with dangerous psychiatric problems languish in county jails across the state.

During his 40 days in the Hennepin County jail, Michael Schuler told deputies he was the Prince of Wales. He stood naked in his own feces and talked to himself for hours. He became so agitated that at one point the jail’s contract medical staff deliberately withheld his medications.

In all that time, Schuler never received a psychiatric evaluation — even though years of court files showed that he suffered from severe psychosis.

On May 2, 2012, Schuler finally found a way out of jail: He stabbed himself in both eyes and was rushed to a hospital.

Twenty days later, Judge Jay Quam left his chambers at the Hennepin County courthouse and walked four blocks to Schuler’s hospital ward for a special commitment hearing. Except for the horrific injuries, Quam says, Schuler wasn’t much different from hundreds of other failed cases he saw in the county’s Mental Health Court.

On any given day, the Hennepin County jail holds 100 to 200 inmates with severe psychiatric disorders, according to records reviewed by the Star Tribune. They represent fully one quarter of the jail’s population, and they languish there, on average, for three months before getting proper psychiatric care.

Across Minnesota, judges, attorneys and sheriffs cite dozens of similar cases in other county jails. They describe a system that, in effect, criminalizes the mentally ill because of backlogs in the state commitment process and a shortage of psychiatric beds.

“What you’re seeing is people who are mentally ill being labeled as criminals,” said a frustrated Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.

Confined under harsh and dangerous conditions, many of these inmates get worse. Five days after Schuler’s incident, Tyondra Newton, 25, a schizophrenic, hanged herself after spending 34 days in her cell. A week later, Jason Moore, an All America wrestler at St. Olaf College before he succumbed to schizophrenia, broke his neck after repeatedly smashing his face into a cell toilet.

“Jailing people for their symptoms is a travesty,” says Sue Abderholden, who heads the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Not caring enough to do anything about it, which is what we are seeing year after year, is inhumane.”

Today, under a court order from Quam, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) is trying to reduce the backlogs. But top state officials admit that the state is failing to provide adequate care.

“I don’t blame anyone for running out of patience with us and how we’ve managed this previously,” Deputy Human Services Commissioner Anne Barry said in an interview. “People shouldn’t be sitting in jail waiting for treatment.”

Months behind bars

The Star Tribune examined records for nearly 100 inmates who were jailed in Hennepin County between 2010 and early 2013 and then evaluated for commitment to state psychiatric care. The documents show long delays at every step of the process.

Many were arrested on common misdemeanor charges such as disorderly conduct. Yet on average they waited in jail more than a month just to get a psychiatric evaluation. Then it took, on average, another 36 days for an examiner to submit a finding; a week for the court to open a judicial commitment case; and a further 30 days for a judge to decide whether to commit them to state psychiatric care, according to a Star Tribune analysis of jail bookings.

Among those who were eventually committed for care, inmates waited an average of 14 additional days in the jail before the state opened a bed for them, records show.

Since 2010, at least 15 of these inmates were jailed for six months or more, and two were jailed for more than a year.

Derres King, who has HIV and eight mental disorders, was jailed for more than six months before being committed to the Minnesota Security Hospital at St. Peter. Darrell Gibson, who was arrested last year for jaywalking in downtown Minneapolis, spent two months in the jail — barking like a dog and smearing urine on the wall — before he was hospitalized. That’s more jail time than many inmates who are sentenced for ordinary misdemeanors.

Broken promise

  • about this series

    Breakdown is a Star Tribune investigative series examining failures in Minnesota’s mental health system that have left hundreds of psychiatric patients in limbo — many of them languishing in county jails, cycling through the criminal justice system and sinking deeper into dangerous psychoses.

    TODAY: The Hennepin County jail in Minneapolis has become a “holding tank’’ for hundreds of patients with mental illness who run afoul of the law and then wind up incarcerated for weeks or months in harsh and dangerous conditions.

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