“Terrifying, Abhorrent, and Illegal”: Protestors face horrific treatment at Hennepin County Jail

By: Abe Asher, Freelance Community Journalist

Jack Flom and Rebecca Jacobson went to the nightly protest at the Brooklyn Center Police Department on Tuesday, April 13, to help.

Flom and Jacobson, both students at the University of Minnesota (UMN), wanted to be on hand to offer protesters rides away from Brooklyn Center, or, depending on how the night progressed, to be able to pick up protesters who were arrested and released at locations throughout the Twin Cities.

When Flom and Jacobson arrived in Brooklyn Center in Flom’s vehicle shortly before 10 p.m., the night was progressing calmly. Flom parked his car at Van’s Automotive Service, down the street from the police station, and the two proceeded to walk towards the main protest. Then, things changed in a hurry. 

Photo of Jack Flom. Credit to Flom.

Law enforcement officers declared an unlawful assembly and quickly moved to arrest protesters. Flom returned to his car. A man who he later learned was freelance photographer Joshua Rashaad McFadden, reporting for The New York Times, jumped into the backseat. Seconds later, law enforcement officers with weapons drawn surrounded the car, banging on the windows and demanding that they both exit.

“I opened the door, I was yanked out on the ground, my glasses were severely bent, I got a big bruise on my right knee, and they detained me,” Flom said.

McFadden, who is Black, suffered a similar fate, as officers beat his legs, struck his camera lens, and, initially, refused to believe that he was a member of the press. Jacobson almost made it back to Flom’s vehicle before she too was arrested. 

Flom described the next 40 or so hours as “literal hell.” They were detained, held on a crowded bus for hours, and then driven to the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility in downtown Minneapolis where they and their fellow protesters filed past a thin blue line flag and were booked into a filthy jail where people struggled to eat, sleep, and access medical care. 

Flom’s negative experience with the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility was not unique. The lights at the facility stayed on all night, preventing particularly people on top bunks from sleeping. Arrested protesters were confined in their cells for 23 hours each day, allowed only one hour to walk around and make phone calls.

Multiple arrested protesters said that they saw blood on the walls of their cells, along with feces, mold, and all manner of garbage, while others said that they were fed expired food and drink. 

“It’s unfortunate that it’s not shocking, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying and abhorrent and frankly illegal,” ACLU of Minnesota staff attorney Isabella Nascimento said.

The treatment that transgender, gender non-binary, and other gender non-conforming protesters received at the facility was particularly abominable. Nascimento spoke at the jail with one arrested transgender protester who was verbally abused by a facility staff member. 

“They’re asking, ‘Do you have a penis or a vagina? Do you have a penis or a vagina?’ and he was saying, ‘I’m a man. I’m a man. I present as male, I use he/him pronouns, I’m legally a man,’” Nascimento said. 

Nascimento said that her client was then told that he would either be assaulted or go on a “rape spree” if he was placed with the “wrong gender.” 

Instead of being placed into a pod with other male protesters, Nascimento’s client was instead placed in solitary confinement and spent the majority of a day there before being moved into a mod with other males. 

Flom, who is gender non-binary, was also placed in solitary confinement away from the bulk of the protesters they were arrested with. The treatment of gender non-normative protesters was an issue throughout the week. 

“The use of solitary confinement in the case of transgender individuals is not really anything new,” Nascimento said. “We’ve heard accounts of that from across the country, and it’s unconstitutional no matter in what context they’re doing it.”

In an email to The Uptake, Hennepin County Public Safety Facility spokesperson Andrew Skoogman wrote that transgender inmates are supposed to be housed accourding to their current gender, “except in the event they are undergoing a gender transformation, and/or on a case by case basis.”

“When deciding housing locations for transgender inmates, each case shall be evaluated individually, taking into consideration: the inmate’s health and safety, present management or security problems, and the inmate’s views with respect to his or her safety,” Skoogman wrote.

The difficulty of Flom’s period of incarceration did not end there. Flom suffers from severe anxiety and takes medication to help treat it, but was prevented from taking it while incarcerated. The result was debilitating. 

“For the first half of Wednesday I couldn’t sleep,” Flom said. “It was just a constant panic attack. There really wasn’t anything I could do, I think.”

Flom said that they tried relentlessly to access a release of information form which would have allowed the facility to contact their pharmacy to confirm that they took the medication they needed, but could not until Thursday, nearly 30 hours into their period of incarceration. 

COVID-19 precautions from the point of arrest were almost nonexistent. A vast number of law enforcement officers were not wearing masks and refused to give masks to arrested protesters who had lost theirs.

Kendall Ty, who lives in downtown Minneapolis, said that his mask was physically removed from his face after he was hit in the back of the head, thrown to the ground, and arrested at the protest on Friday night.

Jacobson said that one of the people who she was transported to the jail with has recently tested positive for COVID-19 and believes that they contracted it during their period of incarceration. She said that some protesters are now in quarantine.

Aside from the conditions of the jail itself, lawyers and protesters alike fumed all week at how long the state was working to hold protesters in jail. 

Under Minnesota law, the state can hold arrested people in jail for up to 36 hours for probable cause. But the clock on the 36-hour hold does not start to run until midnight following the day that a person is booked into jail.  

“If you get someone into jail at 10 pm, their 36-hour hold begins at midnight,” Garrett Fitzgerald, an investigator at the Legal Rights Center who also works with Minnesota Uprising Arrestee Support, said. “If you get someone into jail at 2 am, they’re sitting in there for 22 hours until their 36-hour hold starts.”

A number of arrested protesters believe that law enforcement delayed booking them into jail until after midnight on the night they were arrested so that they could extend their period of incarceration beyond the 36-hour limit. 

Whatever the reason, protesters throughout the week were subjected to long waits in buses with poor ventilation while handcuffed by zip ties that, in Jacobson’s case, was tied so tight that it cut off circulation in her hands. On some buses, the heat caused some protesters dressed in cold-weather gear to sweat profusely and even pass out. 

“They’re doing whatever they want and they’re punishing people however they see fit,” Gabriel Berman, a Macalester College student who was arrested while working as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) at the protest on the night of April 16, said. 

Fitzgerald said that law enforcement’s manipulation of the 36-hour rule points to the fundamentally political nature of the arrests. 

“The majority of these folks are all released without charges,” Fitzgerald said. “So to me, what that indicates is that law enforcement was attempting to disrupt protest activity — including but not limited to first amendment protected activity — and that they were interested in doling out as much punishment as they could get away with upon these individuals.”

More than 90 percent of charges against protesters arrested at Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer were ultimately dropped, dismissed or never filed. The majority of protesters arrested in Brooklyn Center have not been formally charged with a crime. 

The New York Times posted an article about how [former Minneapolis police officer Derek] Chauvin is in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, he gets one hour out,” Berman said. “It’s bullshit that that is the exact same way they were treating protesters.” 

Of course, much of the treatment that protesters endured in jail is not different in nature than what many incarcerated people face daily.

“The jail is not a good place for anybody,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re not caring for people there. There’s regularly people not getting sufficient medical attention, there’s regularly people not getting their nutritional needs met — and that’s why people are in the street. Because this system is unjust.” 

In that face of that trauma, protesters did their best to help each other survive. 

“We got each other through that,” Ty said of his 18 hours in jail. “I got ten new phone numbers in my phone after this experience, and more connections to be made from this — we rallied together and held each up.”

For some protesters, their experience with police and the carceral system has only hardened their resolve to work for systemic change. 

“They held us there for nothing,” Jacobson said. “They didn’t make a point. They didn’t make it so people are never going to protest again. It was a waste of their time.”

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