Jail suicides raise questions about mental health treatment behind bars

After he pleaded guilty to murdering his wife, the Hennepin County Jail seemed like the safest place for Joshua Fury, until it wasn't. 

Last July, just a week before he was to be sentenced, Fury hung himself from a smoke detector in his cell.  

He's not alone.   

According to the Department of Corrections, in the last five years there have been 63 deaths in Minnesota county jails, 33 were suicides.  

Seven of those suicides were in the Hennepin County Adult Detention Center. Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson said one suicide is too many, but that it speaks to a broader issue of the lack of resources for those struggling with addiction and mental illness.   

Nationally, the suicide rate in jail is four times that of the general population.

The seven suicides at the jail occurred from 2015 to September of 2020. 

Sheriff Dave Hutchinson told the FOX 9 Investigators the numbers are high because his jail is the "largest by three times." 

He added the numbers don't reflect attempted suicides or self-harm events that his jail staff prevent. There have been 20 interventions so far this year and as many as 169 in 2017. 

"Mentally ill people, people suffering from a mental health crisis, do not belong in jail, they belong in care facilities that don’t exist so they can get talk therapy, get medication, get school programs, job placement. We are doing it backwards," Hutchinson said. 

When asked how many people with mental illness in the jail would be better suited outside of the jail, the sheriff said, "I would say 20 percent or more."

Undoing of Joshua Fury 

Joshua Fury killed his wife in May and reported her missing. Detectives became suspicious of him when his story just didn't seem to add up.   

They asked him if he "made her disappear?" 

Fury denied it and said, "I love my wife." 

A few hours later, in a search of the couples' Maple Grove home, police found Maria’s body in a crawl space underneath the house. Fury told detectives they had a fight over an ex-boyfriend. 

Court documents show Fury snapped her neck, then suffocated her with a plastic bag. 

"At that point I thought about killing myself, probably should have, I don’t deserve to live," Fury told detectives. "I feel like I can be normal and then I’m not normal." 

In the hours after his confession, detectives watched the undoing of Fury. While being booked and fingerprinted, he found it difficult even to sit upright, falling off a stool at the jail. 

"I feel like I should die," he said.   

Fury’s ex-wife warned detectives, "Josh is very conscious about how he presents himself… and it would be extremely likely that he would attempt suicide - rather than face a trial."  

Maple Grove police told the Hennepin County Jail of Fury’s "high potential for suicide." 

Jail staff placed Fury on suicide watch, checking on him randomly, around every 15 minutes.   

Fury made "delusional statements, hallucinating," and said he would "kill himself if given the chance."  

Five weeks later, after pleading guilty to murder, he was taken off suicide watch "due to good behavior" and moved to a different part of the jail for those with mental health issues. But he was still struggling.   

He told his parents on July 22 he was having "flashbacks and hearing voices" but that his new medication helped him realize "the voices are not real." 

On July 25, at about 5:28 p.m. he talked briefly to his parents and returned to his cell.  

At 6:45 a.m., a guard briefly looked into the cell and saw Fury standing on the left side of it, his back against the wall and his eyes closed. 

The guard said that wasn’t unusual, "sometimes inmates just take a moment to themselves". 

He moved on with his rounds. 

Twenty-six minutes later the same guard saw Fury in the exact same spot and he sounded the alarm. 

Fury used a bed sheet to hang himself from a smoke detector. 

According to the investigation by the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC), there were no rule violations by the jail, even though, another guard said he would’ve been alarmed if he had saw Fury in that same position. 

Jail screening process

Naajikhan Powell, hung himself at the Hennepin County Jail after he was brought over from a hospital psych unit.   

His underlying crime: a probation violation for not taking his medication and not completing treatment.   

The state investigation found a "37-minute gap" in one his well-being checks at the facility. 

Welfare checks that were missed, late or simply done too quickly were cited by state investigators in the suicides of 4 other inmates in Hennepin County: Gabriel Farnsworth, Robert Kellermeier, Miguel Garcia, and Tristan Keys. 

"People need our help, they don't need to be punished while sitting in jail," Hutchinson said. 

According to the sheriff, the pandemic has only made things worse, so he has made changes: adding two mental health nurses from Hennepin Healthcare, suicide-risk assessments upon intakes, medication-assisted treatment for those in withdrawal from opioid addiction and increasing health and welfare checks to every 25 minutes, instead of the state-mandated 30-minute checks and checking for signs of life. 

Michele Deitch is a national expert on jail conditions.  

"The jail should be saved for people we are scared of, not for people we have no other place to put them," she said. "Jails have become, really the largest holding facility for people with mental illness in this country, there are so many people that should have not been in jail in the first place, they are especially vulnerable to the risk of suicide." 

She believes the intake screening process at jails is critical. 

"The people that do that intake screening at the jail need to be trained in what to look for, who is most at risk and identifying those people so they can get them seen by a psychiatrist or medical personal at the jail early on," she added. 

Video feed ignored as inmate commits suicide on camera  

Brett Huber Jr., 25, committed suicide in the Todd County Jail in 2017. 

"Brett had a lot of gifts and a lot of drive and terrible demons with his addiction," said his father Brett Huber Sr. 

A staff member on Capitol Hill, Brett’s ambition was matched only by a debilitating depression.   

He self-medicated with the designer drug MDMA his father said.  

"It was a psychotic break I believe, he thought someone was trying to kill him, he called me, and I urged him to stay there, 'They are not trying to hurt you,'" his father recalled. 

Brett fled the hospital in Alexandra after going there to get help.  

He stole two cars, he ended up on Interstate 94, holding a bible on top of a semi. 

When Brett got to the Todd County Jail there was no mental health assessment and he spiraled.   

On surveillance video he is seen walking down a jail hallway, trying to hide from imaginary monsters.  

His father said the deputies, behind him, appear to be grinning.  

After a month and a half, a judge ordered a psych evaluation, but he never got one.      

Three months into his jail stay, he woke up one afternoon and calmly twisted a sheet into a rope and hung himself. 

The camera in the cell documented part of the suicide.   

However, jailers told state investigators they were too busy to watch the video feed.   

By the time a guard came by, 12 minutes later, Brett was dead.    

The Todd County Sheriff did not return FOX 9's calls about what might have changed in the jail's procedures after Huber's death. 

"No one has a jail get out of card from drug addiction or mental health. We have to do better," Brett's father said. 

Doing better will fall to the Department of Corrections, which inspects and licenses county jails in Minnesota and is responsible for enforcing the rules.  

"We did not hit the mark in terms of carrying out our regulatory responsibility and some jails did not hit the mark in terms of compliance with the standards," said DOC Commissioner, Paul Schnell. 

The department is asking the Legislature for $1.5 million to increase safety and oversight over county jails, hire more inspectors, and increase transparency.   

Schnell also wants to see psychological autopsies conducted, to see if the suicides could’ve been prevented.   

"That first period of time when people are incarcerated can be high risk for them, so how do we make sure we are giving particular attention to that, these critical times and doing a really good thorough assessment when people are coming in," Schnell said. 

What's the answer? 

Jails are just part of a bigger picture of what’s become a revolving door of hospital psych units, jails, and police.    

Sheriff Hutchinson sees it in the headlines every day and referred to the mass shooting that took place on Feb. 9 at a Buffalo, Minnesota health clinic

"What could we have done? This guy has some issues with painkillers, mental health and he shouldn't have had a gun. We are going to talk about it two weeks, be upset for two weeks and the same thing will happen again, and we'll forget about it," he said. 

Brett Huber Jr. struggled with addiction and mental illness and went through a system that seemed almost designed to fail. 

"We spend a tremendous amount of money, as a government, tremendous amount of taxpayer dollars on jails, hospitals on emergency responders. When you look at what happened to my son, it’s the obvious case of what we have doesn’t work, it’s time to do better," Huber's father concluded.