Inmates in the Hennepin County jail are entitled to constitutionally mandated levels of medical care and mental health services — no matter what the current sheriff or some county commissioners might prefer. After reading Sheriff David Hutchinson’s commentary (“Change federal law to let county jails treat inmates properly,” May 22), I felt responsible to set the record straight.

For far too long Hennepin County officials have been complicit in denying mental health treatment services to inmates, even when our judges have held hearings and ordered treatment for them. The County Board, and now apparently the sheriff, would prefer to deny this treatment, save the money and blame the state or federal governments.

The question of who should pay for this care is tricky and simple at the same time. The tricky part is that three levels of government all arguably could be responsible — federal, state and county.

The Department of Human Services State Operated Services Division must pay for treatment beds for psychiatric patients, including those ordered by a court to be transferred from a jail to a hospital. Yet the state has been neglectful in this and has failed to maintain sufficient beds to meet the needs for folks coming from hospitals and jails. So inmates all across the state of Minnesota have languished in county jails waiting for court-ordered treatment.

And, as Sheriff Hutchinson points out, if indigent inmates had Medicaid coverage during a county incarceration these costs could be passed on to the federal government. That’s a very big “if” though, because the federal government currently denies this coverage and is not likely to change any time soon.

To further complicate the matter, mental health treatment cannot be provided in a jail setting, only in a hospital setting. Inmates requiring treatment must be moved to a hospital bed as there currently are no alternatives to the jail, at least in Hennepin County.

The easy part is the bottom line. Unless, or until, the state or federal government takes over responsibility for this treatment, full responsibility rests upon Hennepin County.

During the final six years (2012-2018) in my service as sheriff I made it my personal and professional mission to advocate to everyone and anyone that would listen that these inmates are legally entitled to mental health treatment even if our state refuses to maintain and operate sufficient numbers of hospital beds for Minnesotans who need them and even if the federal government refuses to cover inmates with Medicaid.

For years my countless meetings with, and letters to, state and federal leaders about these issues went unheeded. My weekly reports to the commissioners regarding the inmates in the jail who were being denied treatment were essentially ignored. That all changed when I brought the Raymond Traylor case to the public’s attention (one of many cases I have written about in the Star Tribune). In 2018, Mr. Traylor had spent more than 93 days in a solitary confinement cell (longer than the sentence for the underlying alleged crime of disorderly conduct) even though he was a state patient and even though he had a court order to be immediately returned to a state-run hospital bed.

To avoid the growing political outrage at the time, the Hennepin County Board passed a resolution as well as the initial funding to build a $13 million mental health facility. Since the election, the board and county administration all too quietly have canceled those plans and eliminated all hope of any short-term or long-term plans for the future that will ensure Hennepin County inmates and residents will have the access to treatment that they deserve.

The fact that the current sheriff has “asked” our congressional delegation to make this change in federal coverage is not to be applauded as significant; nor should it suggest to anyone that this is meaningful progress. I am certain that the inmates in need of these services, and their families, will not think so.

The sheriff has a statutory mandate to provide for the care and custody of the inmates — regardless of whether the federal or state government will pay for these services. This means the sheriff is called to a higher duty and must insist and advocate as a guardian would. Ultimately, because these are county facilities and pre-adjudication inmates — each and every one entitled to the presumption of innocence — the County Board has a responsibility to pay whatever is necessary to provide these services.

The sheriff assumed a higher and independent duty with respect to these inmates when he took the oath of office. He must act independently and even adversely from the board, if necessary, to safeguard these inmates. I hope he will advance the mission for the mental health treatment facility. No one should get a pass on this issue, regardless of the political convenience or consequence.

 

Rich Stanek is former Hennepin County sheriff.