When Kathryn Schneider turned herself in last March on a drunken-driving warrant, her history of mental illness, drug use and a previous suicide attempt was well-known to the Koochiching County jailers.
Over the previous decade, records showed, she had been jailed there more than a dozen times. Two years earlier, a jailer noted that Schneider had “20 stitches in left arm from attempted suicide” and on a jail-screening questionnaire Schneider wrote that she felt like harming herself.
Yet a little more than two hours later, the young mother was found hanging in an unsecured cellblock, and records show that her jailers failed to take the most basic precautions to prevent her death.
The circumstances of Schneider’s death, outlined in jail records and videotape reviewed by the Star Tribune, underscore an ongoing pattern of failure by Minnesota’s county jails to protect inmates with mental illness. At least 36 prisoners have committed suicide in the state’s county jails since 2000, and nearly one-third had psychiatric problems that were known to their jailers before they died, according to a Star Tribune investigation last year. In the past three years, Minnesota taxpayers have paid more than $1 million to settle negligence suits related to jail suicides, records show.
This week Schneider’s family filed a federal lawsuit in Minneapolis that accuses Koochiching County Sheriff Brian Jespersen and the jail of deliberate indifference surrounding Schneider’s care.
“I feel betrayed by law enforcement,” said Schneider’s sister, Tracy Podpeskar. “Katie had put herself into an environment where she was supposed to be kept safe. I felt I could tell my Dad, ‘She’s there, we can sleep well tonight.’ But instead, Katie was allowed to prepare for her own hanging.”
Following the incident, Jespersen told a local television station that no jail procedures were violated. Yet a subsequent investigation by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found critical violations of state law governing jail procedure.
Jesperson, who is on vacation, declined to respond to questions about Schneider’s case. Of the Corrections Department investigation, he said: “They made it sound pretty bad, but it’s not near what they say.”
No one tried to stop her
When the jailers escorted Schneider into an unsecured cellblock on the evening of March 25, they left everything there she needed to end her life — a chair, sheets and a towel.
A jail videotape shows what happened next: a woman who methodically prepared to end her life, searching two cells and gathering what she needed. It also shows that nobody tried to stop her.
A little more than two hours after being admitted, the 28-year-old from International Falls was found hanging from a door. It was 14 minutes before a jailer found her, according to the time-stamp on the videotape.
“If you look at this video, you are actually watching a security nightmare that shouldn’t happen anywhere in the United States, let alone Minnesota,” said Robert Bennett, one of the attorneys representing Schneider’s family.
Reviewing the incident, investigators from the Minnesota Department of Corrections found several failings by jail staff, including inconsistencies in their accounts of the evening.
In their log, the jailers said they performed seven well-being checks on Schneider. But a senior Corrections Department inspector who reviewed the videotape and the jail’s electronic time sensor denied that.
“Video footage from the area showed staff members not completing checks appropriately,” the inspector wrote. “The staff member responsible for well-being checks simply scanned the sensor on the outside of the housing unit but did not enter the cellblock nor look inside the cellblock window to visually observe Ms. Schneider.”
The inspector also found that jailers failed to properly book Schneider into the jail. In a critical shortfall, she was not screened for her mental or medical health, records showed. It was not the first time.
“The issue with well-being checks is not new for this facility, as it has been addressed being out of compliance with the rules for the last 3 inspections,” Jesperson was told.
Negligence, then death
State law requires that inmates be personally observed at least every 30 minutes — more often for inmates with mental illness.
“It is apparent that facility staff need significant retraining. This includes holding supervisors and line staff accountable,” the inspector wrote.
Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association said his staff offers training on handling inmates with mental illness, but that no one from Koochiching County has applied. “To eliminate or correct the situation, people have to include us, otherwise we can’t become part of the solution,” he said Tuesday.
When jailers finally found Schneider, they could not detect a pulse, but by the time she was taken to the Rainy Lake Medical Center in International Falls, she had faint signs of life and was put on life-support.
A blood sample taken at the hospital indicated that she had been intoxicated when she checked herself into the jail three hours before — a fact that was not noted by jailers because they did not complete a medical screening, according to records. She registered a blood alcohol level of .17 at the hospital, said Jeff Montpetit, another of the family’s attorneys.
Schneider, a nurse technician, died five days later at a hospital in Duluth.