Calling for change: Families of deceased inmates protest at Beltrami County Jail
BEMIDJI -- It was a cross between a candlelight vigil and a protest demanding change.
A small demonstration gathered outside the Beltrami County Jail on Thursday evening, bringing attention to the three deaths that have occured at the facility in the past few years. The families of Tony May Jr., who died in the jail in August 2016, and Hardel Sherrell, who died earlier this month, coordinated the event.
“We want attention brought to this county jail; that they need to step up and do their job,” said Aldene Morrison, the mother of May. “They’re not going to have a jail if people keep dying.”
According to officials, a second demonstration was scheduled to take place at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension headquarters in St. Paul.
About a dozen people gathered for the Bemidji protest, which was coordinated within a short time of the actual gathering. Morrison indicated they may work on additional protests in the future.
“I got notice an hour ago,” said Elaine Clark, an aunt of May’s.
Clark said they would like to see more training for the jailers who work at the facility. However, Morrison said the sheriff’s office told her things were going to change after her son’s death, but then more deaths occured.
“It’s kind of scary; if you’re going to get training, and you keep having people die, something’s wrong,” Morrison said.
In addition to May, 26, and Sherrell, 27, inmate Stephanie Bunker,39, died in the hospital in July 2017 shortly after attempting suicide in the jail. Sherrell died from an unknown medical condition, according to a release from the jail. May, who had a heart defect, died from “possible sudden cardiac death,” according to an autopsy the family provided.
During the protest, the family also focused on racial disparities in the U.S. and Minnesota prison systems.
The protesters provide statistics from the Prison Policy Initiative that showed, in 2010, for every 100,000 American Indian and Alaskan natives in Minnesota, 2,646 were incarcerated. By comparison, for every 100,000 people identified as white, 216 were incarcerated.
“It’s not the white people that are dying, it’s the natives and the black people who are dying,” Morrison said. “You’d think this would be the safest place for your son or daughter to go to, and then they end up dead a week later.”
Several passing vehicles slowed down to watch the gathering. Clark quietly walked up to the edge of the sidewalk to hold up her sign, which called for an end to racial discrimination in the Beltrami County Jail, courts and the Bemidji Police Department.
The Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office is performing Sherrell’s autopsy. According to Beltrami County Chief Deputy Ernie Beitel, the autopsy could take up to eight weeks to complete.
The Bemidji Police Department is leading the investigation of Sherrell’s death.
“It’s still an active, ongoing investigation,” Beitel said.