The mentally ill man in Bemidji was “furloughed” when he needed costly hospital care in Minneapolis.
A mentally ill inmate was severely beaten in the Beltrami County jail last month — and then abruptly released from custody by a judge so the county would not have to pay his medical bills, according to documents obtained by the Star Tribune.
The judge also failed to ensure that the inmate would be returned to custody — and receive proper psychiatric care — after being released from the Minneapolis hospital where he was treated, according to court officials.
When Theran Stai, 43, was discharged from the hospital about two weeks after the beating, he had to hitchhike 215 miles back to Bemidji, where he has no listed address, according to his sister. He was taken into custody for a mental health commitment hearing and is now receiving treatment at a behavioral health hospital in Bemidji.
The episode has outraged the county’s chief public defender, who said local officials placed budgetary savings before the welfare of a vulnerable adult.
“This was an abuse of power,” said attorney Kristine Kolar. “They had a moral, ethical and legal obligation to take care of this man.”
Beltrami County Judge John Melbye said in an interview that he granted a furlough to Stai after doctors at a Bemidji hospital told jailers Stai had to be transported to the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis for reconstructive surgery on his broken jaw. Melbye said that a deputy seeking the release order contacted him at home and that he made his decision without reviewing Stai’s criminal and mental health file.
“This is just how we’ve done it in the past,” Melbye said. “It’s irrelevant who’s going to pay the bill, to me. This was about medical necessity.”
But he acknowledged that prisoners like Stai can be transported for medical care without being released from county custody.
Beating on Sept. 10
Under Minnesota law, a jail is responsible for the health care costs of inmates while they are in custody. But in a strategy designed to avoid that obligation, jails can request that a judge grant a “furlough” to an injured or sick prisoner in order to shift expensive treatment costs back to the prisoner’s previous health insurer.
Stai was injured on Sept. 10 while being held in the general population section of the jail. No jail videos recorded the assault, although inmates with mental illness typically are held in areas where they can be closely monitored.
Melbye admitted that he made the furlough decision based on extremely limited information and acknowledged that he didn’t review Stai’s recent court records “because more red tape could slow it down.” He said he was “not certain” that Stai could be classified as a vulnerable adult, despite his mental illness.
Melbye also said that at the time, he didn’t consider Stai a public safety risk because, he said, Stai had been jailed on a misdemeanor charge.
“If it was a felony offense, I would’ve looked at it a little longer,” he said.
But records and interviews show that Stai was jailed on a felony drug charge and that he couldn’t make his $30,000 bail because another judge had put stringent conditions on his release.
Additionally, Stai has a long criminal history that included felony domestic violence, terroristic threats and assault. Two years earlier, court records show, Melbye had presided over Stai’s domestic abuse case, which involved particularly violent events.
Melbye, who never practiced law in a courtroom before running for county judge, has been on the bench for seven years and said he’s granted furloughs “a half-dozen to a dozen times.”