Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell is calling for a criminal investigation into the 2018 death of a Beltrami County jail inmate after two letters concerning his treatment by jail staff recently surfaced.
Del Shea Perry refused to let the death of her son, Hardel Sherrell, go ignored by state authorities. For nearly two years, Perry organized rallies, filed a wrongful-death suit and kept pressing Schnell even after his office had investigated Sherrell’s death and found some jail violations.
“It’s been a long time and we’re grateful to God that they are finally being investigated, because this is overdue,” Perry said. “I’m just glad to see that finally there’s hope for justice.”
Perry’s push this year for a broader examination of county jails prompted Schnell to dig deeper into complaints filed with the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC), which oversees the facilities.
Late last week, the DOC discovered two letters written in 2018 by a health care professional expressing concerns about how jail staffers were treating Sherrell. They had been wrongly filed in the DOC’s records system and were overlooked.
“It was a blow, a shock,” Perry said of the letters, which she received from the DOC this week. “Angry isn’t even the word to describe how I felt.”
The letters were written by an employee of MEnD Correctional Care, which provides medical care in jails. Schnell said their contents compelled him on Wednesday to ask the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) to initiate a criminal investigation. The FBI has also been contacted, although it’s unclear what role, if any, it might have, he added.
Typically, federal authorities would investigate any civil rights violations by officers acting in an official capacity.
Sherrell, 27, who is Black, had been in good health on Aug. 24, 2018, when he was transferred from the Dakota County jail to the Beltrami County jail, where he became ill, according to a wrongful-death suit his mother filed last year in federal court. He complained to jail staff about a headache, high blood pressure, chest pain and paralysis but wasn’t taken seriously, the suit said.
The MEnD staffer complained that medical personnel and correctional officers at the jail had said that Sherrell was faking paralysis and incontinence, and that officers refused to help change him out of dirty clothes and a urine-soaked diaper.
“I am submitting this report because the conditions in which I found the inmate and the officers’ response to his medical condition and the condition of the cell were neglectful,” the staffer, whose name was redacted, wrote after visiting Sherrell.
The staffer’s complaints, sent to the DOC days after Sherrell died on Sept. 2, 2018, were misfiled under the health care worker’s name and were not found during a DOC investigation into his death.
“There was an error, there was no doubt,” Schnell said.
Jail video obtained by Perry and her attorney, Zorislav Leyderman, showed correctional officers ignoring Sherrell, who at one point collapsed headfirst into a wheelchair before sliding onto the floor. He appeared unresponsive.
Authorities said Sherrell had pneumonia when he died. Perry and Leyderman said he died of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder that causes the immune system to attack nerves, resulting in weakness that turns into paralysis, according to Mayo Clinic. Its cause is unknown, but it can be preceded by infections.
The MEnD employee wrote a letter to the DOC’s inspection unit on Sept. 11, 2018, and a letter to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office, which had conducted Sherrell’s autopsy. Both were found in the DOC’s complaint files.
The staffer wrote that jail officers were “speaking very negatively” about Sherrell.
“When I got to Hardel’s cell I was overwhelmed by the stench,” the MEnD employee wrote. “It smelled heavily of urine and sweat. Hardel was lying on his back on the floor. He was on a mat full of urine and drenched in sweat.”
Sherrell’s speech was slurred and he complained that he was numb from the waist down, had back pain and could not eat because it was difficult to swallow, among other symptoms, according to the letters.
“Hardel also was crying,” the letters said. “He had tears running from his eyes when he pleaded with me to get him help. He told me he was scared.”
The letters revealed that the staffer had challenged statements by the founder of MEnD Correctional Care, Dr. Todd Leonard, who had posited that nothing was wrong with Sherrell, that he had given himself a blood clot and that he had likely killed himself or “stuck a sock down his throat.”
Perry and Leyderman were troubled that the medical examiner’s report on Sherrell’s death did not cite the MEnD staffer’s concerns.
Ramsey County spokesman John Siqveland said the medical examiner’s investigation was performed with the “full knowledge of the concerns outlined in the letter.”