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Continued: Minnesota jails fail inmates with mental illness, with deadly consequences

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.

In the case of Josh Holscher, jailed in 2010 in a domestic assault case, records show a series of breakdowns from the moment of his arrest. When deputies found him slumped over in his pickup truck deep in the woods near Onamia, Minn., Holscher had a faraway stare across his face and a gun and an empty pill bottle at his side.

A few days later, at his first court appearance, his mother, Debra Kickhafer, instantly saw her son slipping away.

“I kept warning the jail that he’s going to die in there,” she said in an interview. “He had a blank stare. Nobody listened to me.”

Deputies who knew of his previous suicide threats failed to tell their colleagues, court records show. At the jail, an officer noted that Holscher had been hospitalized for depression, but did not notify colleagues or ask the on-call jail nurse for an evaluation, according to jail logs and court documents. The nurse failed to assess Holscher for suicide or evaluate him for mental health problems — despite his mother’s warnings, records show.

Ten months earlier, similar breakdowns had led to another suicide in the jail. That inmate, Walter Wildhirt, 32, told jailers he had mental illness when booked into the jail, but he denied having suicidal thoughts, according to court records.

And though jailers learned that Wildhirt previously had threatened to kill himself and had told them he was on psychiatric medications, no suicide evaluation was ordered, according to records and interviews. In February, 2010, Wildhirt hanged himself in the same cellblock where Holscher would die.

Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren says his staff should not be blamed.

“The documents are very damning, very damaging,” Lindgren acknowledged in an interview. “But I still believe there’s nothing that anyone did that caused his death.”

Holscher’s mother remembers it another way. “I asked for the jail nurse; they said she was too busy,” she said. “I spoke to the probation officer and he said, ‘My job is to put him in jail.’ ”

Contracted medical care

The suicides of Holscher and Wildhirt took place under the watch of the jail’s for-profit medical provider, MEnD Correctional Care, of Waite Park, Minn. MEnD, which says it creates a “win-win situation” for inmates and taxpayers by providing quality care while reducing costs, has similar contracts with 10 other jails in Minnesota. The nurse who failed to give Holscher a mental health screen is a MEnD employee who still works at the jail, according to Sheriff Lindgren.

Dr. Todd Leonard, MEnD’s president, said his medical staff is “painstakingly” careful with inmates, particularly when the risk of suicide is clear.

In an interview, Leonard declined to explain why Holscher did not receive a mental health evaluation.

“As it relates to any allegations raised, MEnD is confident that its staff followed the proper medical standard of care in its treatment of Mr. Holscher,” Leonard said in a statement.

He said his company’s policy is to get professionals involved quickly if jailers identify an inmate’s mental health risks. “And we do everything we can to surmise how to prevent the next one [a suicide] from happening,” he said.

In a case under MEnD’s supervision at the Stearns County jail in St. Cloud just weeks before Holscher’s death, it appears that no psychiatric evaluation was offered to an inmate who did commit suicide weeks later.

Kyle Baxter-Jensen was arrested on drunken-driving charges in Stearns County in the fall of 2010. A day later, Jensen, 28, used a jail-issued razor to cut his neck and both wrists. “I don’t want to live,” he told the deputy who found him in his cell.

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  • Debbie Kickhafer visited her 28-year-old son, Josh Holscher, at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Onamia, Minn. Holscher committed suicide in jail custody in December 2010 after his mother warned Mille Lacs County officials of Hoscher's depression and previous suicide attempt. ] MCKENNA EWEN / Star Tribune * mckenna.ewen@startribune.com

  • Joshua Holscher, 28, committed suicide in Mille Lacs County Jail in 2010. In this photo, he is joined by two of his children, Chloe and Isaac. ] MCKENNA EWEN / Star Tribune * mckenna.ewen@startribune.com

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