Did Mille Lacs County not do enough to prevent one of its inmates from committing suicide?
The parents of Joshua Holscher hope to answer that question with the outcome of a civil suit, stemming from their son’s hanging death while in jail custody in December 2010.
Two weeks ago, a District Court denied a motion for a summary judgment filed by the attorneys representing the county to dismiss the case entirely. Chief Judge Michael Davis found the case had enough merit to move forward on two counts.
“The Court concludes that plaintiffs have raised a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the county had actual knowledge of Holscher’s risk of suicide,” wrote Davis.
The suit accuses Mille Lacs County of denying Holscher the right to adequate medical care and of failing to properly train corrections staff on policy regarding inmates who are at risk of suicide attempts.
“We respectfully disagree with the district court’s decision to deny our motion for summary judgment,” said the county’s lead attorney on the case, Jason Hiveley. “We will file an appeal with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Holscher’s parents, Randy Holscher, who lives in Kansas, and Debra Kickhafer, of Onamia, are represented by the Milaca law firm Currott & Associates in the case.
According to the judgment, several Mille Lacs County deputies, state patrol officers, Tribal Police and county investigators were notified of Holscher’s past attempted suicide. They were also aware of recent statements Holscher had made on committing suicide when they arrived to arrest him following a domestic disturbance at the home of Holscher’s former girlfriend.
When police located Holscher alone in his vehicle on Dec. 3, 2010, he was unresponsive to verbal interaction and had possibly overdosed on prescription medication. Holscher was transported to the hospital and upon examinations that revealed no excess quantity of any prescription medication, he was released as “medically cleared to go to jail.” No mental health or suicidal evaluations were performed at the hospital.
His mother, brother and ex-girlfriend had told hospital staff, deputies and investigators of Holscher’s unstable mental state. Kickhafer had spoken to Sheriff Brent Lindgren and told him of a previous traumatic head injury Holscher had sustained and told deputies she thought her son would attempt suicide again.
According to court documents, even though the officer booking Holscher into jail was on the scene during his arrest, the officer was unaware of the statements about Holcher’s mental state given by Kickhafer and Holscher’s ex-girlfriend. The corrections officer who completed the medical questionnaire portion of the booking process, was also not informed of these circumstances.
During the following four days while in custody, Holscher was seen by the jail nurse twice, admitted to an investigator that he consumed 90 prescription pills the day of his arrest, and Kickhafer placed calls to the jail and county attorney’s office, reiterating her concerns about her son’s mental well-being. But because Holscher denied having suicidal thoughts, a mental health or a suicide evaluation was never conducted and he was never placed on a suicide watch.
While Mille Lacs County Jail corrections officers are trained to recognize suicidal symptoms and instructed to follow policy regarding inmates exhibiting such signs, the attorneys for Holscher’s parents contend this policy was not properly followed. If it had, the plaintiffs argue, Holscher would have been placed in a holding cell that did not have access to a wire grate, such as the one he used to hang himself, and he would have been placed on a more frequent watch. The suit also accuses Mille Lacs County of placing inmates under suicide watch and using other precautions only when an inmate explicitly expresses intentions to self-harm, regardless if several other warning signs are present.
“Under jail custom, the only way that an inmate could be treated as suicidal at the time of booking was if he said that he was suicidal or actually tried to hurt himself,” the judgment states. “Given these potential red flags and the jail’s choice to conduct no evaluation of suicide risk and place him in a cell with a grate and sheets, there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding the county’s knowledge of his risk of suicide and its deliberate indifference to that risk.”
Richard Currott, lead attorney for Holscher’s parents, said part of his challenge will be to prove a pattern of mishandled incidents involving suicidal inmates, to show a systematic breakdown of adhering to policy.
According to court documents, between 2002 and 2010, there were seven attempted suicides and two suicides committed in the Mille Lacs County Jail by inmates, including Holscher. Five of the inmates who attempted suicide had documented mental illnesses. One of those five self-reported suicidal ideation and was placed on a medical hold and given a mental health evaluation. Four of the five denied suicidal ideations and, “despite other potential red flags such as histories of depression, past suicidal thoughts, past suicide attempts, and/or hearing voices telling them to self-injure, no suicide evaluations or suicide watches were ordered,” the suit alleges.
The other inmate who committed suicide less than one year before Holscher, used the same method of hanging by a bedsheet tied to a metal grate in the ceiling. Correctional officers found convicted sex offender Walter Allen Wildhirt, 32, hanging in his cell in the Mille Lacs County Jail in February of 2010. Wildhirt died two days later.
The District Court dismissed two of the suit’s counts against the county; one count of negligence leading to wrongful death and one count of violating Holscher’s due process rights. The allegations of failing to provide adequate medical care and failing to properly train jail staff on suicidal inmates remain.
Holscher was 28 at the time of his death and left behind four children.
“It is tragic that Joshua Holscher took his own life, but the legal issue is whether Mille Lacs County corrections officers knew Mr. Holscher would harm himself and then disregarded that knowledge,” the county’s attorney Hiveley said. “The corrections officers had no knowledge Mr. Holscher planned to commit suicide, so we believe the 8th Circuit should overturn the District Court’s decision and dismiss this case.”