Social Issues

In Minnesota, jail deaths spiked last year despite new protections

A large government building facade
The front of the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility building in downtown Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: 5:26 a.m.

After Del Shea Perry’s son died in the Beltrami County jail of an untreated illness more than five years ago, she became a vocal advocate for better protections for incarcerated people.

In 2021, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Hardel Sherrell Act, named after her son. It set minimum standards for medical care, mental health, suicide prevention and death reviews in jails and prisons.

Perry remembers that year, there were eight deaths in Minnesota jails.

“We were thinking, ‘We’re pretty hopeful that the numbers are going to go down,’” she said. “But instead, they went up.”

Last year, 20 people died while in custody of Minnesota county jails, according to data from the state Department of Corrections. That’s up from 13 the year before.

“I’m just outraged, and I don’t understand why,” Perry said.

She and other justice advocates have called for more scrutiny of those deaths, and what’s driving the increase.

Seeking answers

Several of the deaths were ruled suicides; some as accidental drug overdoses. Others were attributed to natural or undetermined causes.

Among them was Larry Hill. On Sept. 26, he was being held on a drug charge in the Hennepin County jail, when staff found him unresponsive in his bed. They rendered medical aid and Hill was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. 

larry hill
Larry Hill died in September 2023 while in custody of the Hennepin County jail.
Courtesy of Christine Hill

The Hennepin County medical examiner declared Hill’s manner of death as natural, and heart disease as the cause. He was 36 years old.

His death has left his mother, Christine, with unanswered questions. She said her oldest son struggled with mental illness, but had no history of heart problems. 

“I feel like they failed somewhere,” Christine Hill said. “I don’t know where. But I don’t want another family to have to go through what I went through.”

In Minnesota, county sheriffs operate jails. The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office declined to be interviewed about the four deaths that occurred in its jail last year, citing pending litigation. 

“We remain committed to professionally serving all people in our facilities and under our care with compassion, dignity and respect,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

Last month, the family of Lucas Bellamy filed a federal lawsuit against the county. Bellamy, the son of Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy, died of a perforated bowel three days after he was booked into the Hennepin County jail in July 2022. The lawsuit alleges that “deliberate indifference” to his medical needs led to Bellamy’s death.

A man speaks at a podium while two woman embrace behind him
Louis Bellamy, father of Lucas Bellamy and founder of Penumbra Theatre, speaks during a press conference in Minneapolis on Jan. Del Shea Perry comforts his wife, Colleen, behind him.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Mental health, overdoses are factors

The Minnesota Department of Corrections licenses and inspects county jails. Commissioner Paul Schnell said what’s happening in jails reflects national societal issues, including mental health concerns and addiction.

“I think it does become an issue that we need to be concerned about how do we address the acute mental health needs of people coming in,” he said.

People with acute mental health needs often end up in jail because of a lack of community services, Schnell said. In some cases, he said, jails are holding people longer because there aren’t enough resources to provide court-ordered assessments to determine whether they’re competent to stand trial.

Schnell said there’s also been an increase in illegal drugs, including fentanyl, getting into correctional facilities.

“Jails see it more acutely what people are booked in,” Schnell said. “It may be an acute overdose that was not seen. It could be ingestion when people came into the booking process. There can be a lot of factors.”

Speedier reviews needed

The Department of Corrections doesn’t investigate jail deaths. But it does conduct a review after a death to determine whether the jail was in compliance with state standards.

Schnell said he knows family members are frustrated when those reviews are often delayed for months, as investigators wait on autopsy reports or toxicology tests.

“So we believe that we need to respond to those quicker, get access to that information and begin to do this work, even while we’re waiting on a final determination as to the cause of death,” he said.

Meanwhile, Perry wants more accountability and transparency. She thinks corrections officers in all jails should wear body cameras. Some counties, including Hennepin and Ramsey, already require corrections officers to wear cameras, but not all do.

Perry also said jail staff need better training on how to recognize medical and mental health problems, and call for emergency help when it's needed.

“Until that changes, we won’t see change,” she said.