Northern Minn. jail violated state rules in inmate death

Body: 

BEMIDJI, Minn.—The Beltrami County Jail violated state rules regarding inmate checks in the 2016 death of a man in custody there, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Tony Edward May, Jr., 26, of Red Lake, died Aug. 11, 2016, at the jail. An autopsy report provided by May's family lists "possible sudden cardiac death" as the cause. May had a heart defect known as myocardial bridging.

May's medical records, also provided by his family, show that he was taken to Sanford Bemidji Medical Center on Aug. 7, 2016, after he fell and hit his side on a toilet. X-ray results state that May had a fracture involving either the anterior left sixth or seventh rib.

Though May's death was classified as "natural" by the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's Office, the DOC found that the jail violated rules that require jail staff to check on all inmates every 30 minutes.

A DOC letter sent to Hodapp in January outlined the rule violations. When an inmate dies in a Minnesota county jail, a DOC inspection unit reviews any investigations completed, along with reports by medical examiners, incident reports, documentation and video footage to determine whether any rules were violated.

In May's case, the DOC found that jail staff did not check on May every 30 minutes, and that some checks were conducted too quickly. One check was 38 minutes late, according to a DOC report.

Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp disputes that portion of the report, and said that in the three hours before May's death, one block check was late by 16 seconds, one individual check by 29 seconds and one individual check by seven minutes and 47 seconds.

"There were several checks on the date of the incident that were past 30 minutes," the DOC letter said. "Additionally, the pace of many of these checks was observed to be very quick. It would be difficult for staff members to movement, (sic) rise and fall of the chest or other signs of life conducting checks at such a quick pace."

Hodapp offered a spreadsheet showing the times welfare checks were conducted between 8:52 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2016, and 11:39 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2016. According to the data, jail staff conducted a total of 84 checks on May's cell block. Seventy-eight of those checks occurred every 30 minutes or less. Six checks happened after the 30-minute mark.

"Of course we addressed that with our staff, but we also have to consider the fact that we're understaffed in our jail, and that's a problem that we've had in our jail for quite some time," Hodapp said. He said that on the night of May's death, five corrections officers were on duty, supervising 104 prisoners.

In addition, Hodapp said that the DOC's statement that several of the welfare checks were too quick was a matter of opinion.

According to the report, May was checked by jail staff at 6:21 a.m. the day of his death. The DOC's report said he was found dead at 6:55 a.m., but Hodapp said he was found by an inmate before that. The data provided by Hodapp said an inmate alerted staff to May's condition at 6:46 a.m.

"I think it's important to recognize the fact that the jail is always running at high capacity and our staff is doing the best they can to keep the prisoners safe," Hodapp said. "The one thing we can't control is what happens to people with their health...Try as we might there's times like that when we can't do it."

Jail administration said no policy changes have been made.

May's sister, Tara May, said that neither the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office nor the Minnesota Department of Corrections informed them of the rule violations. The family protested May's death outside the jail on Aug. 11 of this year.

"We have been going over the reports from the BCA and the Beltrami County sheriff's report over and over knowing, we knew we were missing something concrete," Tara May said. "This is it."

The DOC did not respond Friday to requests for comment on discrepancies between its report and Hodapp's statement.