It’s been over nine months since Tybetha Prosper received the devastating news of her son Naajikhan Powell’s death while in custody at the Hennepin County jail. Powell, 24, was found unresponsive in his cell on Sept. 11 after an apparent suicide according to the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.
Powell had been arrested by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department after staff in the Hennepin County Healthcare’s psychiatric department called in authorities when he refused to take his medications.
According to his mother, Powell had been living in a group home because of his mental health issues. He checked himself into the psychiatric ward on Sept. 3 complaining that his medications were causing him to be even more ill.
Prosper wants those she considers responsible for her son’s safety held accountable. She has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Hennepin County and Hennepin Healthcare for failing to properly monitor Powell before his death. According to the suit, Powell was placed in a situation that allowed him to bring harm to himself.
“Having mental health issues is not a crime,” Prosper said. “He should have never been put in the regular [jail] population. I have questions about the manner they brought him into jail in the first place.”
Powell was the 10th jail in-custody death of an inmate in Hennepin County since 2015, which has raised questions about the jail’s procedures and treatment of inmates. Jail authorities refused to put Powell under suicide watch although he had come directly from a mental health institution.
According to Prosper, the hospital had sent paperwork to the jail saying that her son was not well, that he was a “moderate suicide risk” and needed to be under observation. Apparently, deputies ignored the warning and failed to place him on suicide watch.
Barred from access
Powell was taken to the hospital after he was found hanging in his cell. Prosper was traumatized upon hearing the news of her son’s hospitalization and was further frustrated by the way she was treated by hospital staff when seeking information.
She recalled receiving a phone call: “They said that my son was in the hospital because of an apparent suicide,” she said. After arriving at the hospital, Prosper was informed by medical staff that she couldn’t visit her son until she received permission from the jail. She was told that her son was sent to jail for a medical violation after refusing to take his medication.
It was later revealed that he was arrested for a probation violation that stemmed from him supposedly not taking medication for his mental health issues. “The last time I had talked to him was the day before, and he was at the hospital in the mental health ward. He had checked himself in weeks prior because the medication that they were giving him was making him have a horrible reaction,” she said.
Powell was discharged from Hennepin County Healthcare Psychiatric Unit on Sept. 11, arrested for the supposed probation violation, and placed in a cell without suicide safeguards. Over four hours later, Powell was found unresponsive in his cell. He was placed on life support as doctors awaited any signs of brain function.
During that time, Prosper states that she overheard nurses make numerous remarks about Powell’s organs. “I got really pi**ed off because this is the third time I’ve heard it and he’s still on life support,” she said. “I go out there and tell them, listen here, if I hear one more thing about my son and his organs, I’m going to flip out.”
Prosper was limited to 20-minute visits with her son while he was on life support because he was still within the custody of the County. Law enforcement officers refused to leave as if Powell had committed a serious crime. They remained present until Prosper provided them with information that his court appearance was thrown out.
“We brought the paper there to say he’s released from custody. Still they did not want to leave. They wanted a phone call straight from the jail. We had to raise hell and high water to make sure that they left,” Prosper recalled.
Six days later, Prosper made the decision to take her son off life support.
As Prosper continues to grieve the loss of her son, she’s also fighting to bring awareness to his case. She held a rally in Elliot Park earlier this month with the help of Be Their Voices, an organization that supports families who have lost loved ones in the jail system due to neglect.
“That sent out a message not only to the people that are struggling with mental illness and their families. It also helped us let the people in the hospital know we are watching you,” she said.
“Any mother that has to go through losing a child is the worst thing. You’re losing a piece of your soul, your spirit, your life, your heart, and I never ever, ever want any other mother or parent to go through this, especially when it’s 1,000 percent preventable.”
Prosper and other families who’ve lost loved ones under such circumstances are demanding the passage of the Hardel Sherrell Act, a bill aimed at preventing more deaths in Minnesota correctional facilities.
Del Shea Perry founded the organization after her son Hardel Sherrell was found dead in a Beltrami County jail cell after medical staff and correctional officers neglected to render him aid.
As a mental health practitioner, Prosper has been dedicated to addressing the lack of sufficient mental health resources in Black and Brown communities prior to her son’s death. She started Will2Prosper in 2019 to address the lack of culturally specific health care available to minority communities and began providing mental health support and referral services.
Prosper hopes to keep her son’s memory alive in her work. She hopes to provide alternative therapy options for those with mental health challenges and de-stigmatize those who experience crises.
“My son meant too much to this world, to his family, and especially to me ‘cause that was my firstborn they took away from me,” she said. “He was sweet. He was very, very intelligent. He was loving to his family. He would call me every day, several times a day, just to check up on his brothers and sisters.”
The MSR reached out to the Hennepin County Jail and Sheriff’s Department for their responses but received no reply.
Hennepin Healthcare responding saying, “We are saddened by the death of Naajikhan Powell, however, we are not able to comment on pending litigation.”
Abdi Mohamed is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at email@example.com.