Victims’ families seek justice for ‘stolen lives’
Some Minnesota families who have lost loved ones as a result of alleged jail staff misconduct gathered earlier this month to celebrate the passage of the Hardel Sherrell Act. Advocates demand that those responsible for these jailhouse deaths be held accountable.
Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law in mid-September. It establishes a set of minimum standards in jails related to mental health assessments, suicide prevention, medication administration, and well-being checks. The law also bans chokeholds in jails and establishes policies for investigating in-custody deaths.
The law is named after Hardel Sherrell, a 27-year-old Black man who died after being apparently neglected while in custody at the Beltrami County Jail in 2018, having suffered the debilitating effects of an autoimmune disease. The Minnesota DOC concluded in May 2020 that there had been numerous “regular and gross violations of Minnesota jail standards” leading up to Sherrell’s death.
On Oct. 2, Sherrell’s mother Del Shea Perry met in St. Paul with community members to commemorate her son’s life and celebrate the passage of the legislation. “Just because someone has a run-in with the law,” said Perry, “it doesn’t mean they should be neglected, abused, and left to die. The law is intended to ensure that a person can be booked into jail, pay their debt to society and leave unharmed.”
Perry said that although the law is named after her son, it’s representative of all of the families who have experienced the pain of losing someone during a stay inside jails across Minnesota. “It represents all stolen lives. This law represents all of our loved ones.”
The statutes regarding the treatment of incarcerated people in Minnesota were 115 years old before the passage of the law. “For true reform, and to keep our communities safe, we need to be able to hold people accountable when they fail in their duty to protect those in their care and custody,” Gov. Walz said about the new law.
“The loss of Hardel Sherrell is irreparable, and this legislation does not bring a mother’s son back. But it does mark the start of meaningful change that will save lives for decades to come.”
Sherrell walked into the Beltrami County Jail on Aug. 24, 2018, without any apparent health problems, surveillance footage shows. He was pronounced dead days later on Sept. 2. In June of 2021, Stephanie Lundblad, a nurse practitioner who was working at the jail in Bemidji at the time of Sherrell’s arrival, spoke publicly for the first time about what led up to his death.
Lundblad was an employee for MEnD Correctional Care, which has contracts with jails across Minnesota to provide health care to incarcerated individuals. Before Lunblad’s first encounter with Sherrell, another nurse told MEnD CEO Dr. Todd Leonard the man should be taken to the hospital. However, a jail administrator rejected the medical advice, saying Sherrell was only trying to escape.
By the time Lundblad encountered Sherrell on Aug. 31, his condition had deteriorated. He was covered in sweat, his mouth dropping. A diaper he was wearing had been soaked through, leaving the mattress pad below him soiled.
At Lunblad’s direction, Sherrell was taken to Sanford Hospital. But when his MRI came back normal, he was released with directions that he return to the hospital if he showed symptoms of difficulty standing or swallowing, paralysis, or loss of control of his bladder or bowels.
Although he displayed each of the listed symptoms, Sherrell was not taken back to the hospital and died on the floor of his cell two days later. Lundblad resigned from MEnD after Leonard told her not to jump to conclusions about Sherrell’s death because it could jeopardize his company.
While the passage of the legislation is a step in the right direction, according to Perry true justice requires that MEnD be shut down and the staffers involved in Sherrell’s death be criminally charged. “That is the justice I seek,” she said.
MEnD cares for an inmate population of 2,700 a day, KARE11 reported in 2020. Since 2015, 25 inmates have died while MEnD was the jail’s health care provider. Some deaths resulted from the company’s failure to provide necessary treatments and the employment of inexperienced staff.
“The State of Minnesota should be ashamed of themselves to even say a company like this could continue to operate after all we have learned,” Perry said. She plans to stay in communication with the DOC to ensure the laws intended to prevent inmate deaths are upheld. She has founded Be Their Voices, a nonprofit organization that advocates for and supports families who lost loved ones in the jail system as a result of neglect.
Perry is in the process of suing MEnD, Sanford Hospital and other defendants. The FBI continues to conduct a criminal investigation into Sherrell’s death. The Minnesota Board of Medical Practice is expected to release a decision on the potential revocation of Leonard’s medical license close to the end of October.
Niara Savage is a contributor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.