Minnesota penalizes county jail for depriving inmate of food and water for more than 2 days

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Corrections has sanctioned a county jail for depriving an inmate of food and water for more than two days after he smeared feces in his cell and refused to clean it up.

The department has ordered the Otter Tail County Jail in Fergus Falls to transfer all current inmates to new facilities before the end of the business day. The jail is not allowed to hold new inmates for more than 72 hours, not including holidays and weekends, until the state agency agrees.

According to the order from the department’s inspector general, on Saturday, February 10, the inmate threw feces on the inside of his cell door and smeared it on the window of his cell, and under his cell door in the day room of the jail. Prison staff told him they wouldn’t give him food until he cleaned it up, but he refused.

Not only did prison officials deprive the inmate of six consecutive meals, the report said, he also told an inspector that he was forced to drink toilet water and his own urine because the water supply to his cell had been turned off. Prison staff saw him “swallow his own feces” on the second day, a Sunday, according to the report. Staff documented that they saw him lick feces from the window of his cell, and that he said it was because he was hungry.

But staff did not contact medical staff about his possible physical and mental health problems until the following Tuesday. He was also denied a daily shower.

The order noted that state regulations strictly prohibit depriving inmates of food as punishment. It said the prison’s failure to comply “has contributed to conditions that have the potential to pose an imminent risk of life-threatening harm or serious physical harm to persons confined or confined in prison if not corrected.”

Otter Tail County Sheriff Barry Fitzgibbons said in a statement Wednesday that his staff will follow the state’s orders.

“I sincerely regret that this incident occurred,” Fitzgibbons said in a statement. “The Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Office is committed to protecting the safety and security of our staff and inmates. We will work closely with the DOC to ensure the requirements set forth in their order are implemented.”

The incident came to light on Feb. 20 when the prison administrator contacted the Department of Corrections to self-report the staff’s actions and told the agency it had launched an internal investigation with the assistance of a local law firm. The department decided it would also conduct its own investigation.

The inmate, whose name was not released, was transferred to a jail in a neighboring county. The reason he was being held was not detailed in the order, other than to say “he had disciplinary time remaining from a previous prison sentence.”

The sheriff’s statement did not dispute the state’s findings. His office did not immediately respond to follow-up messages about whether staff had been disciplined, why the inmate was being held and whether he had mental health issues.

Corrections officials ordered refresher and remedial training for prison staff, including on proper supervision of inmates, inmate rights and recognizing the signs of mental illness.

The reinstatement of the jail’s authorization to resume normal operations will be contingent upon the completion of all ordered corrective actions and assurance that a plan is in place to prevent such an incident from occurring again, the order said.