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Beltrami County Jail violated state rules before inmate suicide

BEMIDJI—The Beltrami County Jail violated state rules regarding inmate checks in the 2017 death of a woman in custody, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Stephanie Bunker, 39, of Naytahwaush, was found hanging in her cell at the jail on July 1 and later died at a hospital on July 11.

A news release from the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office at the time of Bunker's death said jail staff found her with a bed sheet wrapped around her neck after they began to pass meals to inmates. Because Bunker did not come out of her cell for the meal, a corrections officer went to check on her and found her hanging.

Corrections staff attempted "full, life-saving measures," the release said.

Two months after Bunker's death, the DOC's Senior Detention Facility Inspector Greg Croucher sent Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp a letter detailing the rules violations and other concerns raised during the department's investigation.

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 Bunker's case, the DOC found that jail staff allowed Bunker to refuse to change into an anti-suicide smock three times after she was taken into custody. An anti-suicide smock is "a tear-resistant garment generally used to prevent a detained individual from forming a noose to aid in the commission of suicide," according to written statements provided by Jail Administrator Melissa Bohlmann.

According to Croucher's letter, Bunker underwent a medical screening at the jail on June 27, and said she was off her medications. She also admitted to heroin, meth and alcohol abuse. Though she was put on a special watch with 15-minute checks, the letter said, she was not dressed in an anti-suicide smock.

"The issue was brought up that she should be in the smock @ 1137 hours on June 27th but she refused and staff allowed this refusal," the letter read. "This should not have occurred."

Investigators later learned that Bunker was initially not put in a smock because none were clean at the time.

When asked by the Pioneer why Bunker was allowed to refuse the smock three times, Bohlmann and Hodapp wrote that the smock is not mandatory, and that staff used their best judgment. At the time of Bunker's death, the jail had three smocks; the jail now has seven.

Hodapp and Bohlmann also dispute the DOC's assertion that multiple checks on Bunker were late.

The letter detailing the rules violations said that Bunker was, at one point, put on a 15-minute watch with "full precautions."

"The 15 minutes logs referenced earlier had 16 special watch checks exceeding 15 minutes. These late checks ranged between 16-53 minutes in duration," between 4:03 a.m. June 27 and 5:48 a.m. June 28, the letter said. "There is also a 3 hours and 54 minute gap between (5:48 a.m. - 9:42 a.m.) on June 28th."

But Hodapp told the Pioneer that no checks were late. Though Bunker was determined to be a "special management inmate" for a period of time, she was eventually moved to general population. Hodapp could not say when or how that decision was made, but the DOC's letter said Bunker was cleared to move to the first floor with no precautions on June 30 at 4 p.m.

When asked about the portion of the DOC's letter claiming that some checks were late, Hodapp said he couldn't comment.

"For some reason the DOC inspector was focusing on what happened in the first few hours of her being booked into jail, and that was the thing that we couldn't understand," Hodapp said. "He was talking about things that happened in the first ... 12 hours of her incarceration, which really didn't have a nexus to what happened six days later."

The DOC's letter also cited "an apparent lack of communication between medical staff and custody staff." According to the letter, no information about a special watch on Bunker was available after 9:42 a.m. June 28.

Hodapp and Bohlmann believe Bunker was appropriately supervised.

"The DOC was wrong about their conclusion regarding the assessment that was being made inside the jail," Hodapp said. "I really can't expand upon that because it involved medical information."

This isn't the first time the Beltrami County Jail has violated rules leading up to an inmate's death. A DOC investigation into the Aug. 11, 2016, death of Tony May found that multiple checks on May were late.

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or gpastoor@bemidjipioneer.com

(218) 333-9796
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