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KARE 11 Investigates: Legislature comes to bipartisan agreement on sweeping jail reforms

KARE 11 series that uncovered preventable deaths at jails across Minnesota prompts the most significant protections for inmates in nearly 50 years.

ST PAUL, Minn. — State lawmakers appear poised to pass sweeping reforms to Minnesota jails to provide better safety and health care for inmates.

The reforms, prompted by KARE 11’s reporting uncovering numerous preventable inmate deaths, will require the Department of Corrections to set minimum standards for inmate safety, including physical and mental health care, particularly for those confined with mental illness or substance use disorders.

It’s been nearly a half-century since any significant changes were made regarding oversight of Minnesota jails.

“In my view there is no doubt that this reform will save lives in Minnesota,” said DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell. His department has oversight over county jails.

The legislation is part of the larger public safety omnibus bill, which leaders of the GOP-controlled Senate and DFL-controlled House agreed to after hours of negotiating over the weekend. The bill still needs a final vote and the governor’s signature.

The jail legislation will give the DOC more authority over jails, granting the agency the power to investigate deaths, and quickly suspend or revoke a county’s license should the jails present an imminent risk of harm to its inmates.

Last year KARE 11 revealed that DOC inspectors failed to identify breakdowns at county jails that contributed to inmate deaths, often because they were only allowed to do cursory reviews.

Even when problems had been identified, records show the DOC failed to force local jails to make corrections because the agency lacked the authority to do so.

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“In the past, it may have been argued that we were more of a paper tiger,” Schnell said.

Under the new laws, any inmate death will require a jail administrator to form a review team that must examine whether any change in policy or procedures needs to be implemented and report those findings to the DOC. The law will require the review teams to include a medical expert who did not provide services to the inmate.

In past deaths, reviews were often conducted by the medical providers involved with the inmate’s care, which goes against national jail standards.

The new law also requires the DOC to file annual reports with the legislature that show the results of the inmate death reviews, the number of uses of force on inmates, and the number of suicides and suicide attempts. 

“This is the first time we’ve updated the minimum standards around our jails in 50 years,” said Rep. Jaime Long, DFL Minneapolis, who authored the bill in the House. “We have had some tragedies in our state. We know that we are not an example of what we should be for keeping our jail population safe.”

Among those cases: Hardel Sherrell, who died in the Beltrami County jail in 2018 after spending days in excruciating pain. He became partially paralyzed and was forced to lay in his own filth as jail staff claimed he was faking paralysis.

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Long credited Sherrell’s mother, Del Shea Perry, for getting the reforms passed as she diligently lobbied the legislature and told her son’s story in committee meetings for the last several months. The jail reforms were named the “Hardel Sherrell Act” following her testimony in February.

“It’s hard to look away when you hear a story like that and it’s hard to look away when you have a face for a bill where nobody can argue that that should not have happened,” Long said.

Another advocate has been Brett Huber, whose son died by suicide in the Todd County jail despite clear warning signs that he was severely mentally ill

“This bill is a great step to fix a very broken system in Minnesota county jails,” said Huber, formerly an advisor to a Republican governor in Alaska.

The bill also puts parameters around use of force in jails for the first time in 115 years, all but banning prone restraints, the controversial technique that killed George Floyd.