A man who suffers from schizophrenia is suing Hennepin County, alleging he received improper care in the county jail.
Michael Schuler was held for more than a month after being arrested on a probation violation. During that time, his mental health deteriorated quickly.
The twenty-five-year-old Schuler has suffered from schizophrenia since he was a teenager. His attorney, Bill Lubov, said Schuler was arrested early last year for missing a court appearance. Lubov said the appearance was missed because Schuler had been receiving psychiatric care at Hennepin County Medical Center after being arrested for allegedly using methamphetamine.
On March 26, Schuler was discharged from HCMC and taken to the county jail. Eventually he was put in a cell alone, and Lubov said that is when Schuler started to hurt himself.
"He had been using a pencil to scratch parts of his body, and yet the staff took no action to remove the pencil from his jail cell," Lubov said.
Lubov said Schuler continued to show obvious signs of psychosis and he refused medication. Lubov said Hennepin County employees failed to give Schuler the care he needed.
"It's hard to imagine what the horror must have been to see this young man standing naked in his cell, squishing his feet in his own feces, urinating in the cell, banging against the bars and screaming unintelligibly," Lubov said.
He said Schuler used the pencil to poke himself in his eyes, partially blinding himself. Schuler has no vision in his right eye and diminished sight in his left. Schuler is now receiving community-based care and understands why he is legally blind, but is in too fragile of a state to do an interview, Lubov said.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who runs the county jail, said he cannot comment on pending litigation. Stanek has previously said that jail is no place for mentally ill people. In November, seven months after Schuler partially blinded himself in jail, Stanek wrote an opinion piece on mental illness for the Star Tribune.
In it, Stanek said his office created a special unit to identify inmates suffering from psychiatric disorders and the staff has received extensive training on safety issues. Stanek said the mental health unit has even won a national award.
Sue Abderholden with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota said HCMC and the county jail typically try to give proper care to people with mental illness. She said the ultimate tragedy in Schuler's case is that his self-injury could have been prevented.
"He's already been hospitalized multiple times. He's been hospitalized just in a short period of time multiple times and been in jail more than once," Abderholden said. "So you have to say, as a society, is that what we do -- we just let people fail when they have a serious mental illness like this?"
Cases like Schuler's are rare, Aberholden said. While funding treatment for people with mental illness is a constant struggle for advocates, Lubov says Schuler's case represents a larger systemic failure -- one that goes beyond lack of resources. He said Schuler didn't just fall through the cracks.
"This was not a matter of a judgment call. This was a matter of simply negligent care, and disregard for what was a life-threatening situation for this young man," Lubov said.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman denies Schuler's allegations of negligence. He filed court documents Tuesday asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
Aberholden said the case speaks to the need for early intervention. A bill up for a hearing at the Capitol Wednesday would provide funding for intensive treatment for adolescents and young adults showing their first psychotic symptoms. She said that is the kind of treatment that might have saved Schuler an ill-fated trip to the Hennepin county jail.