Family calls for accountability after 23-year-old dies following apparent suicide attempt at Hennepin County Jail

Callan Gray
Updated: September 23, 2020 10:01 PM
Created: September 21, 2020 09:48 PM

An investigation is underway after a 23-year-old man was found unresponsive at the Hennepin County Jail. According to the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, he died of an apparent suicide while alone in his cell on Sept. 11.

His family identified him as Naajikhan Adonis Powell. 

“He was a young man before his time, he started a beautiful human being,” said Clara Sharp Akbar-Bey, his aunt. “He was just a kind-hearted young man and so I want people to know that about him.”

She joined Powell’s step-father Michael Turner and other family members outside of Hennepin County Medical Center to speak with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.

“He was a good person,” Turner said. “We just want to get answers.”

He told us Powell grew into a man of faith as he struggled with mental illness.

“He loved to go to church. Once he started to hear the word of God, he loved going, he didn’t care what church he went to, he went all the time,” Turner said.

On Thursday, they made the decision to end life-support at the Hennepin County Medical Center. 

Powell was arrested at HCMC on Sept. 11, according to the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. He was booked into the Hennepin County Jail at 1:22 p.m. for a probation violation. According to the warrant, he failed to take medication as prescribed and failed to complete treatment. 

It stemmed from an arrest in January, when he was accused of bringing metal knuckles, considered a dangerous weapon, into the Hennepin County Government Center. Powell was accepted into Mental Health Court in July.

The sheriff’s office said deputies found him unresponsive during “routine inmate health and wellness checks” around 5:45 p.m. on Sept. 11.  

“The guards said they found him ... about 20 minutes later and gave CPR,” said Sharp Akbar-Bey. “Why was he by himself? Why wasn't there an escort? Why wasn’t there someone to watch him?”

State law requires deputies conduct inmate checks every 30 minutes. If an inmate is mentally ill or potentially suicidal, "more frequent observation" is required.

The sheriff’s office wouldn’t say if Powell had that designation, deferring to Hennepin Healthcare whose nurses provide initial booking exams. Hennepin Healthcare wouldn’t confirm Powell’s status, citing privacy laws.

It appears from court records Powell was in crisis.

Less than two hours after he was booked into the jail, the county petitioned to have him committed back to a local hospital because his behavior showed he was “posing a risk of harm due to mental illness.”

“So many people dropped the ball on my nephew, dropped the ball, and now this is where we are,” said Sharp Akbar-Bey.

Powell’s family told 5 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and PTSD. His mental health challenges were documented in court records over the last year.

Documents show that since June 2019, he was committed several times to North Memorial Health Hospital, Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Hennepin County Medical Center.

As recently as August 17, a judge ordered Powell be committed after he went to HCMC and said "he did not feel safe, and he was going to hurt himself or others” and reported he was suicidal. The emergency order is the last court filing in his civil commitment case until Sept. 11.

HCMC wouldn’t provide 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS information about his case, citing privacy laws.

“They did not tell us why they released him,” Sharp Akbar-Bey said. “They should not have released him, they knew he was dealing with severe mental health issues.”

“I want to know why they let him go knowing that he has severe mental health concerns,” she said. “I want to know did they pass that information along to the police department and if the police department knew why would they put him in general population? And why didn’t they keep an eye on him?”

Powell’s family is calling for an investigation. 

“We just want to make sure that the system is doing all of the correct things that they should do,” Turner said.

According to Hennepin Healthcare, the nurses who conduct the booking exams have access to an inmate’s Hennepin Healthcare history.

“Jail staff other than health care professionals are given patient health risk information on a need-to-know basis to protect the health and wellness of inmates and employees,” said Christine Hill, a Hennepin Healthcare spokesperson.

She said if an inmate exhibits a health or psychological risk, they receive an elevated watch. 

“Somewhere, someone messed up,” said Travis Rhodes, his cousin. “He was not supposed to be in that situation and unfortunately now I have to bury my younger cousin.”

Powell’s family told us they want accountability. 

“He was so loving, he would do anything for his family,” Rhodes said. “I’d give anything to have him back.”

Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson would not take part in an interview for this story.

He said in a statement, “Our deepest sympathies go out to the loved ones who are grieving.  We will thoroughly review our procedures with our medical partners and investigate the circumstances that led to this tragedy.”


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