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Prisoner’s Suicide in Sherburne County Minnesota Jail Results in $2.3 Million Settlement

by Keith Sanders

A recent investigation by KARE 11, a Minnesota-based NBC news affiliate, has brought much-needed attention to systematic failures at jails throughout Minnesota. Many local and state correctional facilities in that state, according to the months-long investigation, do not provide prisoners with adequate medical and mental health care. The investigation noted that not providing such care not only violated Eighth Amendment bans on cruel and unusual punishment, but also resulted in numerous unnecessary deaths.

One particularly tragic death was highlighted in KARE 11’s examination of Minnesota jails. While confined in the Sherburne County jail in 2016, James Lynas complained to guards that he was experiencing a severe drug withdrawal. Lynas also informed guards and staff members on several occasions that he intended to kill himself.

The guards responded by placing Lynas in a cell with a narrow observation window, which provided the guards only a partial view inside Lynas’s cell from a distance on a catwalk, according to the guards’ testimony during a deposition. Although the guards claimed to have performed regular safety checks, Lynas still managed to hang himself in an area of the cell where the guards apparently could not see.

In a subsequent federal civil rights lawsuit, attorney Robert Bennett faulted both Sherburne County and MEnD Correctional Care for neglecting Lynas’s mental health condition. Bennett, who filed the suit on behalf of Lynas’s family, contended that MEnD failed to treat Lynas for suicidal ideations, while the jail guards did not properly supervise Lynas in his cell.

A federal judge agreed. The judge denied the county’s motion to dismiss the suit. After the court ruled in the family’s favor, Sherburne County settled with them and Bennett for his attorney fees for $1.3 million, with MEnD Correctional Care adding another $1 million.

MEnD Correctional Care is no stranger to litigation. The healthcare provider operates in many Minnesota jails and Lynas’s case is one among many. KARE 11 reported that MEnD has been implicated in myriad other cases for not providing prisoners with adequate constitutionally-required health care. Not surprisingly, the Minnesota medical board has reprimanded Dr. Todd Leonard, who runs the company, in the past for “unethical and unprofessional conduct.”

Initially, both Sherburne County and MEnD Correctional Care insisted that a non-disclosure agreement had to be included in any settlement. However, Lynas’s family rejected such an arrangement. “If you’re going to try and hold somebody accountable, the best thing to do is shine the light of public opinion on it,” their attorney said.

Bennett also expressed his hope that the $2.3 million settlement would get the attention of local and state officials and “prompt jail reforms.” But that is not likely to happen. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Minnesota jails and health care providers to implement meaningful changes to their policies and practices when they refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing from the outset. See: Lynas v. Stang, USDC, D MN, Case No. 18-CV-2301 JRT/KMM.

Until officials and administrators admit that Minnesota jails are systematically failing the individuals they are mandated to protect, there will be only more tragedy ahead in Minnesota’s future. HRDC recently sued the Sherburne jail for its policy of banning all books and magazines as well. The case has settled and will be reported in an upcoming issue of PLN



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Related legal case

Lynas v. Stang