Minnesota jails have failed inmates with mental illness, with deadly consequences.
John Schroepfer’s mother waited in dread outside the psychiatric ward of St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth.
Inside, her son lay recovering from a suicide attempt at the Itasca County jail in Grand Rapids. At any moment, sheriff’s deputies would come through the door to get him. Even though he had suffered brain damage, even though doctors had recommended treatment for depression and drug use, a judge had ordered Schroepfer back to the same jail where deputies had found him hanging by a bedsheet just weeks earlier.
And yet, because vigilant deputies spotted him last month and cut him down before it was too late, Schroepfer can be counted lucky — an outlier in a state where mental illness in jail often leads to deadly outcomes.
At least 35 inmates have committed suicide in Minnesota’s county jails since 2000 — nearly a third of them with psychiatric problems that were known to authorities before they died, according to a Star Tribune review of hundreds of jail logs and court records.
Another 27 inmates committed suicide in state prisons during the same period — including seven with known histories of mental illness — and an additional 11 committed suicide while on prison release.
In many cases, jailers and medical staff failed to take appropriate preventive measures, court records show, and in some, deputies actually altered jail records in an effort to cover up mistakes.
One symptom of the problem: Minnesota taxpayers have paid more than $1 million in the last three years to settle negligence lawsuits related to jail suicides.
“You have a nightmare scenario inside a jail filled with people who’ve tried to kill and people trying to injure themselves,” said Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association and a former police officer. “Add the factor of mental illness … look at what you’ve got to deal with every day.”
Across the nation, suicide is the leading cause of jail deaths, and in Minnesota, some 20 percent of county jail inmates have severe psychiatric disorders — caught up in the criminal justice system because of larger breakdowns in the state’s system of mental health care.
Short of a lawsuit, however, the state has little recourse to hold county jails accountable. The Minnesota Department of Corrections, which oversees medical care in county jails, has no legal authority to levy fines or impose tough sanctions.
Against that backdrop, jail staff members often have failed to follow even basic screening and prevention protocols, according to jail and court documents.
In 2007, for example, an inmate known to be mentally ill and depressed committed suicide in the Olmsted County jail in Rochester, and then deputies falsified their watch logs to conceal surveillance lapses. In December 2010, a 28-year-old father hanged himself with a bedsheet in the Mille Lacs County jail in Milaca, Minn.; staff had not placed him on a suicide watch even though he had tried to kill himself just weeks earlier.
While the numbers are not large in a system that confines thousands of offenders each year, they signal grave failures, according to Alvin Cohn, one of the country’s foremost authorities on jail protocols.
“There is no excuse for a successful suicide in a jail,” said Cohn, a criminologist and an adviser to the U.S. Department of Justice. “If the head of a jail allows or creates a culture where policies are not implemented, you’re going to have tragedies.”
At the same time, counties have increasingly outsourced jail medical care to private contractors that promise to save money by rationing services. Today, nearly one-third of Minnesota’s jails contract with for-profit providers of mental and medical care.
Since 2010, three inmates with documented mental illness committed suicide while under the care of one of those managed care companies, records show. The physician who runs the company, MEnD Correctional Care, said that he couldn’t comment on specific cases but that he’s confident his staff provides quality care.
‘Nobody listened to me’
Perhaps no Minnesota jail has such a troubled pattern as the one in Mille Lacs County.
Between 2002 and 2010, the jail had two suicides and seven attempts. Five of the inmates who attempted suicide had documented mental illnesses, but only one was placed on a medical hold and evaluated.