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Minnesota Judge Condemns System that Jails Mentally Ill

A Minnesota state court judge blamed political indifference for a justice system that warehouses the mentally ill in county jails – a practice that may have resulted in the death of a guard ten weeks after he fought with a schizophrenic prisoner.

Hennepin County Mental Health and Probate Court Presiding Judge Jay Quam made his opinions known in an April 2012 written order when he indefinitely committed Derres Laquan King, 24, to the Minnesota Security Hospital.

King, who was born HIV-positive and suffers from numerous psychiatric disorders, bit 50-year-old Hennepin County jail sergeant Bradley Berntson on the leg during an altercation after King didn’t get a spoon with one of his meals.

Berntson died several months later from what a medical examiner officially called “acute alcohol toxicity,” though it’s believed that he suffered fatal complications due to medication he took in an effort to avoid potential HIV infection from King. Berntson’s wife, Julie, has since filed a wrongful death suit against the county, claiming he was not adequately protected at the jail.

“It is fair to conclude that the bite Mr. King inflicted contributed to Sergeant Berntson’s death,” Judge Quam wrote.

“While they are sitting in jail, they [mentally ill prisoners] often recede further into the depths of their illness,” he added. “They present a danger to themselves; they present a danger to their fellow inmates; and they present a danger to the good men and women who run the jails.”

In another case, Hennepin County jail prisoner Michael Schuler, whose severe mental illness went largely untreated, stabbed himself in both eyes on May 2, 2012. He had told deputies he was the Prince of Wales. Later that month, Judge Quam held a special commitment hearing to have Schuler belatedly committed.

And on May 7, 2012, jail prisoner Tyondra Newton, 25, who suffered from schizophrenia, killed herself by hanging.

Quam noted there has been a significant increase in Hennepin County mental health referrals from criminal courts in recent years.

Jail staff should be allowed to make such referrals themselves, he said, when they believe a prisoner is mentally ill. He also recommended that competency and commitment evaluations be streamlined into a shorter, more efficient process – with one judge ruling on both issues – so that prisoners with psychiatric problems can more quickly receive treatment or medication.

“Changes are necessary to protect the inmates themselves, get treatment for mentally ill people and protect the innocent,” Judge Quam stated. “The question is whether or not people have the political will to implement them.”

Unfortunately, not much has changed since Quam raised concerns about the mental health needs of prisoners. According to a September 9, 2013 article in the Star Tribune, the Hennepin County jail holds 100-200 seriously mentally ill prisoners at any given time – around one-quarter of the facility’s population. They face lengthy delays before obtaining mental health care.

Based on an analysis by the Tribune, prisoners wait for over a month, on average, before receiving a mental health evaluation. There is another month-long delay before the findings of the evaluation are submitted, then another 30 days before a commitment determination is made by the court. Plus it takes several more weeks until a mental health bed becomes available.

“What you’re seeing is people who are mentally ill being labeled as criminals,” observed Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.

Sue Abderholden, director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, agreed. “Jailing people for their symptoms is a travesty,” she said. “Not caring enough to do anything about it, which is what we are seeing year after year, is inhumane.”

On July 1, 2013, a state law went into effect that requires the Minnesota Department of Human Services to place certain prisoners in mental health facilities within 48 hours after a commitment order is entered. However, while this reduces the delay after someone has been committed, it doesn’t address delays on the front end of the mental health evaluation and commitment process.


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