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In response to a complaint brought by Ramsey County public health workers, Minnesota's top corrections official has ordered Sheriff Bob Fletcher to immediately cut down the county jail's population, saying insufficient staffing levels pose "imminent risk of life-threatening harm" to people confined to the facility.

In a letter to Fletcher dated Friday, Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said the jail must reduce its maximum operating capacity to 324 beds, down from 492. Schnell said an ongoing investigation found violations of five state rules designed to make sure jails have enough staff on duty to keep the facilities' populations safe.

The Ramsey County Adult Detention Center has a "long-documented history of failing to comply" with some of these requirements, according to the letter. In recent months, staff has lagged — or outright failed — in fulfilling their obligation to provide timely medical care to people in the jail, including a December incident in which it took over an hour to call an ambulance for a person suffering a stroke.

The jail's population is at about 370 people, said Ramsey County spokeswoman Rose Lindsay. That marks a significant reduction from 444 in October, but still exceeds the new mandate. Schnell's letter instructs the jail to submit a "capacity-reduction plan" by end of the day Monday, and be in compliance with the new threshold by noon Wednesday.

"As the state's licensing authority, any risk to the life and safety of those in custody must be addressed immediately," Schnell said in a news release. "When the stakes are this high, taking decisive action quickly is a must."

Ramsey County Board Chair Trista MatasCastillo said Saturday that public health officials, including some who work in the jail, first raised concerns to Fletcher's office over access to timely medical care. After those went "unanswered," staff brought the complaints up the chain to county leadership, who decided to voluntarily report the issues to the Department of Corrections, which regulates county jails in Minnesota.

"We voluntarily self-reported our concerns to the Department of Corrections and stand in full support of the issuance of the conditional license and their investigation," said MatasCastillo in a statement. "We will work with the Sheriff to ensure he is able to fully comply with this order, and we wish that we would have been able to address these issues earlier when legitimate concerns to him were raised."

In a statement responding to the letter, Fletcher said he shares Schnell's concerns, and he cast the blame for overcrowding on the County Board of Commissioners. "It's something I've been actively trying to draw attention to. And it was totally predictable, caused by significant increases in crime, massive backlogs in the criminal justice system, and a nationwide worker shortage," Fletcher wrote.

Fletcher said he's been "aggressively" recruiting and hiring more corrections officers, but county leadership needs to provide more resources and to "make better use of other facilities," he said, such as the Ramsey County Workhouse, for incarcerated people.

"We need the County Board to take action to address the jail overcrowding," Fletcher said . "In the meantime, we'll keep working with the limited staff and support we have to keep inmates safe."

Schnell's letter cites a November 2022 inspection that found the jail was over its capacity, and it instructed the county to get in compliance and submit a staffing report by the end of the year. The Sheriff's Office turned in the report on Dec. 30 and said it was back in compliance, but a follow-up audit found the jail failed to meet staffing minimums on 12 shifts in January.

The investigation into Ramsey County is still underway, but Schnell describes four incidents found so far that violated Minnesota's requirements for checking on the well-being of people in jails and providing them with medical care in a timely manner. The descriptions omit names of the staff members or incarcerated people. According to the letter:

Late on the night of Sept. 22, 2022, a man came into the jail on allegations of obstructing the legal process and interfering with a police officer. "Video evidence reveals he was not provided any food or water," and he was left unattended while bleeding for two hours. The Department of Corrections sent a letter instructing Ramsey County Undersheriff William Finney to complete a written plan as to how the jail would address these violations, but neither Finney nor anyone else from the jail's staff complied.

On Dec. 12, 2022, jail staff waited over an hour to call an ambulance for a person having a stroke. Jail staff told medical workers they "did not have staff available and would call once they did." Due to this lag time, the person wasn't admitted to a hospital for more than an hour and a half after showing signs of the stroke. The investigation also found that, preceding the stroke, correctional staff failed to take "sufficient time to personally observe the well-being and status" of the person.

A few days later, correctional staff prevented medical workers from screening a person who'd come into the jail after a car accident. The person was eventually released from the jail without a medical screening.

In January, a person arriving at the jail told medical staff he'd swallowed drugs. Medical workers ordered he be sent to the hospital for a screening, but correctional staff "refused to comply with this directive."

Schnell said the Sheriff's Department must immediately begin providing daily updates on its efforts to reduce the jail's population to a state inspector. It must also notify the inspector any time the jail's population exceeds the new cap.