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First COVID-19 case found in Minnesota prison system

Minnesota's prison inmates, many of whom are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, have no way to socially distance.

Minnesota's prison inmates, many of whom are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, have no way to socially distance. Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

As Minnesota practices social distancing to thwart the spread of the coronavirus, aka COVID-19, the incarcerated are trapped in overcrowded cells without windows that open as correctional officers come and go from the world outside.

Like senior homes, cruise ships, and other facilities where people live in close quarters, these conditions could become hotbeds of contagion if even one person enters carrying the virus. As a result, prosecutors across America have begun to divert low-risk inmates—such as those charged with nonviolent crimes or technical violations of probation—from jail.

On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a memo directing the Bureau of Prisons to release prisoners to home confinement when possible. Despite a visitor ban and quarantine for all new federal prisoners, eight staff and 10 inmates recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Barr’s orders apply to five federal prison facilities in Minnesota.

Minnesota county attorneys, including Ramey’s John Choi and Hennepin’s Mike Freeman, are doing the same.

“An outbreak of the coronavirus in these custodial facilities would not only move fast, it would potentially be catastrophic,” prosecutors across America, including Choi, urged in an open letter to America’s corrections system. “According to the Center for Disease Control, the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions are more susceptible to falling severely ill with COVID-19. Both populations are, unfortunately, well represented among incarcerated people.”

From March 16-20, Ramsey County reduced the number of arrestees in lock-up awaiting trial by more than 50 percent, from 398 to 194. The population in the Ramsey workhouse—people who have been sentenced to less than a year of jail—has been cut from 235 in October to 120 Monday afternoon.

“It’s a nightmare scenario getting COVID in a correctional facility. It’s a little like being on a cruise ship except there are bars,” Chris Crutchfield, a deputy director of the Ramsey workhouse. “We want to keep our staff and inmates safe. Just because you get a DWI doesn’t mean you deserve to get COVID-19.”

Crutchfield says all the people Ramsey released were low-risk to the public, already close to release, or on work release, meaning they worked among the public during the day and only spent their nights in jail. Nobody was released to homelessness, according to the county.

“If this virus is so serious that we are emptying government buildings, sports arenas, and restaurants in order to halt the spread, it only makes sense to release people who are unlikely to pose a threat to the public,” Hennepin's Freeman said in a statement March 16. “Taking these steps will protect the health of those working in the facilities, the health of the prisoners, and ultimately, the health of all the residents in the county.”

By Monday afternoon, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office had reduced its jail population by one-third, from 815 to 518. 

Judges, sheriffs, prosecutors, and public defenders in both counties worked together to free inmates. 

Minnesota’s state prisons have no such plan.

Over the weekend, a staff member from the juvenile prison in Red Wing and an inmate at Moose Lake (home to more than 1,000 inmates) tested positive for COVID-19. According to the Department of Corrections, both are experiencing mild symptoms and don't require hospitalization. Through Monday, the DOC has tested 22 inmates; test results for four other inmates are still pending.

“We have been working directly with epidemiology staff from the Department of Health for
several weeks to plan for the known likelihood of staff and inmate cases of COVID-19,”
DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said in a statement. “We are taking all reasonable steps to minimize the spread with the state’s correctional facilities, and we are implementing methods to protect those most at risk medically."

The DOC's safety measures include setting up extra hand-washing stations, suspending medical copays to encourage inmates to seek healthcare, and suspending in-person visitation.

Correctional officers have to answer a short questionaire about their health upon reporting for work, including whether they'd traveled outside the country the past two weeks, had contact with anyone "with COVID-19 or [who] displayed symptoms of COVID-19," and whether they'd experienced symptoms of their own like cough or fever.

"It was always a question of when, not if, this would occur," says Sarah Davis of the Legal Rights Center in response to confirmation of the COVID-19 case in Red Wing. "Commissioner Schnell's statement is wholly insufficient and fails to acknowledge the very significant concern for protecting our vulnerable youth.

"We need to know if youth at Red Wing have been exposed, if any are showing symptoms, and if so, what steps have been/are being taken. If Red Wing is isolating youth in solitary confinement or equivalent as a result, that is also deeply concerning. Solitary confinement for youth is recognized around the world as cruel and inhumane, torture."

In a letter to inmates last week, Commissioner Paul Schnell wrote, “We recognize that social distancing is difficult in prisons. But we believe it is possible.”

“Understand that health experts tell us that simply being near someone for a few minutes presents minimal risk,” he wrote, instructing inmates to wash their hands and cover their coughs, and avoid being directly sneezed on.

The Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has been petitioning Gov. Tim Walz, Commissioner Schnell, and the local Immigration Customs and Enforcement field office to release low-risk inmates who are in poor health, elderly, eligible for work release, or in prison due to technical violations. According to a 2019 Council of State Governments study, some 3,000 Minnesotans are behind bars—costing the state $125 million a year—for breaking probation rules rather committing a new crime.

On Friday, the IWOC and other community activists—who remained separated into about 70 cars—rallied outside the governor’s mansion to deliver 800 signatures.

“We can only shower every other day. That is not safe or sanitary in this situation either, being locked in the room all day with a roommate. They even forbid us to shower if we are on our menstrual period on the odd days,” an inmate at the women’s prison in Shakopee said, via the IWOC. 

“They are still admitting new prisoners from county jails every day who are not screened for the virus or quarantined from us existing offenders once they arrive to the prison,” said another.

On Monday, the State Public Defender, ACLU Minnesota, and other groups called on the governor and the Minnesota Supreme Court to declare some kind of emergency plan for juveniles in state prisons, to "immediately halt new admissions" to juvenile facilities, as well as "immediately releasing" those due out within 90 days.