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Lawmakers learn about ‘crisis situation’ of inmate deaths in state prisons and jails

A July 2020 report by KARE-TV brought to light several instances of inmates dying while in Minnesota’s county jails, some with mental health issues who committed suicide, and others who allegedly died because jailhouse staff ignored their pleas for medical help.

The mother of one of those inmates, Hardel Sherell, described to a House committee Friday how staff at the Beltrami County jail let her son sit in his own excrement, motionless on the floor of his cell, for eight hours at a time for nearly a week.

Jail staff believed Sherell was faking, she said, but his paralysis was real. She agonizes every day wondering why her son’s jailers failed to follow medical orders that might have saved him.

“Every incarcerated person deserves to receive appropriate health care and safe conditions, but unfortunately, we know that is not the case in Minnesota today,” said Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls).

He sponsors HF1267, which would mandate policy reforms and strengthen standards to improve safety for inmates and staff in state and local correctional facilities.

By a vote of 16-0 Friday, the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee sent the bill, as amended, to the House Ways and Means Committee. The companion, SF1427, sponsored by Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

An amendment adopted by the committee names the bill the “Hardel Sherell Act.”

Sherell’s mother, Del Shea Perry, spoke on the conditions leading up to her son’s death in the Beltrami County jail in 2018 at age 27.

Sherell walked into the jail under his own power, she said, but developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder, while he was awaiting trial.

The syndrome causes paralysis, and her son became immobile and barely responsive to stimuli.

The jailers said he was faking, she said, even after he lost control of his bowels and bladder and couldn’t swallow food. He died within a week.

“Hardel spent the last few days of his life on a jail floor in unimaginable agony and pain,” she said. “Hardel’s death was senseless, unnecessary and completely preventable.”

Following her son’s death, Perry met with Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who reviewed her son’s case and required the Beltrami facility to institute several changes.

Schnell told the committee he was in full support of the bill mandates. “This is a crisis situation,” he said.

That ongoing crisis is the impetus for his legislation, Long said, noting that more than 50 inmates have died while in state custody since 2015.

The Department of Corrections has the authority to license correctional facilities and set minimum safety standards, Long said, but the authority is ineffective because it’s “confusing, vague, and has little teeth.”

Long’s bill would require the Corrections Department to institute several changes, including:

  • updating mental health assessments, screening, medication administration, and discharge planning;
  • sharing relevant inmate health information with medical personnel;
  • prohibiting certain conduct, such as chokeholds; and
  • developing policies to examine circumstances surrounding the death of an individual in custody of the facility.

The bill would also require all correctional facilities to provide a release of information form to individuals upon intake allowing them to authorize information and circumstances related to health status that can be shared in the event of incapacitation.

There are no appropriations specified in the bill, but Gov. Tim Walz’s budget proposal would allocate $1.5 million in the 2022-23 biennium to improve and expand the oversight of correctional facilities, update the jail reporting system, and strengthen the minimum standards established by the Corrections Department.

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