ST. PETER — When an inmate in the Minnesota Security Hospital who is in the throes of mental illness assaults a staff member, no crime has been committed.

After all, someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing can hardly be accountable for his or her actions.

“If someone didn’t intend to hurt somebody, you don’t want to slap a felony on them,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota.

But not all of the assaults at the St. Peter hospital for the mentally ill and dangerous are the product of an irrational mind.

Sometimes, an inmate is aware of his or her actions and attacks a staff member out of malice, not mental illness. This is illegal, but not a felony when committed in Security Hospital. Tim Headlee, a lead security staffer and president of the local union, said he's spoken with inmates who coolly decide to attack staffers.

"You know what you're doing," he said. "You've identified your plan. You've articulated it and acted out on it."

Bills sponsored by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, and Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, would make it a felony for people committed as mentally ill and dangerous to inflict "demonstrable bodily harm" on a staff member or throw bodily fluids at them. The proposal received its first hearing Tuesday in the House public safety committee, chaired by Cornish.

“The workers there (at Security Hospital) have been assaulted at high rates, probably one of the highest in the nation,” he said. “They’re getting, naturally, kind of tired of this.”

Cornish said inmates are rarely charged with a crime because county attorneys don’t think the penalties are serious enough to justify action. Making these assaults a felony, as they are in the state’s prisons, may change that, he suggested.

Sheran, a former advanced practice psychiatric nurse, said the hospital will continue to differentiate between assaults that are the result of mental illness and those committed by rational minds.

A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services said there’s no written policy for these reviews, though they look at factors like thought process. In other words, did the assault happen because the inmate, for example, heard voices in his or her head or did the inmate get mad about a decision made on their unit?

The hospital’s executive director and medical director decide whether to forward a case to the St. Peter Police Department and the Nicollet County attorney.

Abderholden, the mental health advocate, said her organization has concerns about the legislation but didn’t oppose it during its Tuesday hearing.

She doesn’t oppose felony charges for malicious attacks but hopes the distinction between those assaults and ones caused by mental illness stays in place.

Headlee said the union supports the legislation. It sets “an expectation/deterrent for clients with acuity levels having a strong criminal mindset whose actions are not the result of mental health symptoms … ” he wrote in a statement.

Prevention of violence “should remain a top priority of DHS to its employees,” Headlee wrote. “Getting hurt is not an inherent part of the job.”

One problem with expecting consequences for violent behavior at Security Hospital to be a deterrent, Sheran argues, is that seriously mentally ill people don’t link offense and punishment the way most people do. For example, an inmate who’s put in solitary confinement after hitting a worker might not make any connection between the confinement and the assault.

Headlee agrees — to a point.

"There are some clients you can lock up and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference," he said. But "some people know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, the system became vulnerable to those types of clients and so did we."

Mankato Rep. Jack Considine, a former Security Hospital worker, said during the hearing that the bill is long overdue. He said his ribs were broken and half a dozen eyeglasses were smashed off his face, but no one was charged for the assaults.

The bill doesn’t change how the hospital decides whether to forward charges to the police and county attorney. Considine said when he was a worker there administrators didn’t bother sending along reports.

“Is there a way we can encourage them to follow through on this?” he asked.

Headlee said staff will be paying attention to see how this change, if signed into law, is implemented. Their overall goal is a culture change, he said, and this is one of many small steps forward security staff are seeking.

The bill, which has no cost to the state, passed unanimously on a voice vote and heads to a House health and human services committee.

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