Hennepin County to evaluate mental health of new inmates

Project Exile Press Conference
Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek speaks at a press conference, Monday, Oct. 6, 2014 in downtown Minneapolis.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek aims to do a better job caring for jail inmates with mental health and substance abuse problems.

Stanek on Thursday announced that a new team that includes health professionals will assess all inmates when they're booked into the jail, provide them with the appropriate care, and help them transition back to the community.

The new initiative comes nearly a year after the county paid $1 million to settle a lawsuit after an inmate suffering from schizophrenia partially blinded himself.

Of the 100 or so people booked into the Hennepin County Jail every day, at least a third have some sort of mental health problem, and most have been there before, Stanek said.

The new team of social workers, Hennepin County Medical Center personnel and other specialists will ensure that inmates receive the medical care they need when they arrive.

Stanek said the program, which has been in the works for several years, could prevent what happened two years ago, when inmate Michael Schuler partially blinded himself after poking his eyes with a pencil. Schuler had a history of schizophrenia.

According to court documents, the 25-year-old had been held more than a month despite showing obvious signs of psychosis.

"There are many folks like Mr. Schuler who suffer from mental illness treated or untreated who come to our facility," Stanek said. "Our goal here is to identify them when they come in, get them the proper services. Not just coming in the front door, but also when they leave here."

Stanek says most people who are booked into the jail are there less than 72 hours.

The new team will work as efficiently as possible to make sure inmates receive the right kind of care, said Leah Kaiser, a manager with Hennepin County's Human Services and Public Health Department.

"We want to identify them really quick in that narrow window, get them linked up with services in the community so that we can break the cycle of them coming back through either our jails, our hospitals or our shelters," she said.

Kaiser said social workers also will help inmates find the right chemical dependency treatment if they need it, and sign them up for Medical Assistance, MinnesotaCare, or another health plan. She said the department will hire some new people but will largely cover the extra work with existing staff and resources.

"It's really about those new relationships, and seeing problems as integrated, holistic," Kaiser said. "It's really across the whole system: 'what do we do together?'"

Bill Lubov, a Twin Cities defense attorney who handles mental health cases, applauds Stanek's commitment to mental health care in the jail. Lubov sued Hennepin County on behalf of Schuler and settled last November. He said says the county is moving in the right direction.

"This is a good step. I'm not sure it's the final step. In fact I'm convinced it's not," Lubov said. "But we're fortunate to live in a system that has been overall very responsive to the needs of the mentally ill."

Still, Lubov said, Hennepin County could do a better job of including defense attorneys earlier in the mental health screening process.

He also notes that inadequate behavioral health care for inmates is not just a problem in the Twin Cities.

Lubov's latest lawsuit is against Beltrami County, where he said an inmate at the county jail in Bemidji severely beat another inmate who suffers from a mental illness. Lubov alleges that a judge released the victim so the county would not have to pay his medical bills.

Beltrami Sheriff Phil Hodapp said he cannot comment on the suit other than to say he's confident the case will be dismissed. Hodapp said he's glad the issue of mental health care in county jails is finally getting the public attention that it deserves.

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