Woman's suicide prompts inquiry at Hennepin County Jail

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 2, 2008 - 7:20 AM

The inmate who died in Hennepin County custody hung herself with a phone cord.

Carolyn Lisa Dean

A Minneapolis woman jailed on suspicion of drunken driving used a telephone cord to hang herself in a Hennepin County jail holding cell Wednesday night, triggering an internal investigation by the Sheriff's Department.

It was the first suicide in the Hennepin County jail's new facility, built in 2000, and the first suicide in a Hennepin County jail in 12 years.

"In the eight years [since the new jail was built], we've never had this happen," said Chief Deputy Mike Carlson of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office. "We average 48,000 bookings a year and everyone goes through that portion of the jail. You do the math. It's never happened before."

Jail officials found Carolyn Lisa Dean, 42, with the metal cord from the wall-mounted phone wrapped around her neck at 8 p.m. Wednesday, several hours after she had been booked on suspicion of drunken driving. The State Patrol had arrested her just after 4 p.m. at Hwy. 62 and 34th Avenue S. near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Jailers found Dean, who was alone in the holding cell, during a mandatory half-hour check that was performed well within the allotted time period, Carlson said. He declined to discuss Dean's demeanor or behavior when she was booked.

No incident report was available for Dean's arrest because troopers typically have a 36-hour time frame to complete charging documents, said Lt. Mark Peterson of the Minnesota State Patrol.

The Hennepin County medical examiner performed an autopsy Thursday, classifying Dean's death a suicide, with "ligature hanging" as the official cause.

Hennepin County officials did not release word of Dean's death until nearly 17 hours after her body was discovered. Carlson said officials wanted to wait for autopsy results before issuing a full release and then the autopsy was postponed for a few hours.

The telephone whose cord Dean used to kill herself is similar to a pay phone. It is used by inmates when they are first booked to call family members or attorneys, Carlson said.

The cell she was in, which had no bars, is used to hold multiple inmates until overnight arrangements can be made. It can house several inmates, though Dean was alone at the time. Inmates can be seen through a plexiglass window.

"Basically everything is bolted to the wall, nailed down or glued down," Carlson said of the cell. "There is nothing loose whatsoever."

Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek said Thursday that Dean's death remains under internal investigation. He declined to comment further.

The last inmate to commit suicide in a Hennepin County jail was Philip Hott, 18, who used a bed sheet to hang himself in 1996. Hott was in a housing unit at the jail's former facility in Minneapolis City Hall.

According to records from the state Department of Corrections, 79 inmates committed suicide between 1985 and 2007 while in custody at jails around the state. Other causes, such as medical problems or injuries, have accounted for 43 deaths in the same period.

Court records show that Dean pleaded guilty in April 2007 to drunken driving and disorderly conduct. She was given a 45-day stayed sentence and placed on probation.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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