For four days after she tested positive for COVID-19, Aaryana Malcolm, an inmate at the federal women's prison in Waseca, grew increasingly ill, vomiting and coughing up blood.
Other inmates had to help her use the bathroom and shower. Medical staff told her to take Tylenol. Eventually she was rushed by ambulance to a hospital where she was put on a ventilator.
Her account and the stories of 11 other inmates coping with the consequences of COVID-19 that spread rapidly through the low security Waseca facility are laid out in more than 300 pages of documents filed in a lawsuit this month by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota.
"A staggering 70% of inmates — approximately 450 women — have contracted the virus in less than three months" at the Waseca prison, the ACLU said in a court filing.
Lawyers for the prisoners are seeking a temporary restraining order that would include the release or home confinement of all inmates age 50 and older with specified medical conditions and as an alternative, implementation of social distancing, quarantine and other measures. The suit also challenges the arbitrariness of the Bureau of Prison's compassionate release polices.
The lawsuit also alleges that prison officials failed to properly quarantine infected inmates, provide enough personal protective equipment or require staff to wear it, and that some sick inmates were required to sleep on wet floors.
"Even now they ignore the risks of infection, re-infection, and death by regularly busing-in new inmates," the ACLU alleges.
The ACLU names as defendants, Mistelle Starr, the warden at the Waseca facility and Michael Carvajal, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Anne Cummins, public information officer at the prison, said Starr would not comment and referred a reporter to the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C.
"We do not comment on matters that are the subject of pending legal proceedings, which include FCI Waseca's response to COVID-19," Justin Long, a spokesman for the bureau, said in an e-mail. He referred a reporter to a department website on the virus, which reads: "The Bureau of Prisons is carefully monitoring the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As with any type of emergency situation, we carefully assess how to best ensure the safety of staff, inmates and the public."
The ACLU paints a picture of neglect and mistreatment at the Waseca facility that have led experts brought in by the ACLU to conclude in court-filed affidavits there was a systemic failure at the prison which allowed the disease to spread. Infected new inmate arrivals from an Oklahoma jail spread the disease to inmates in Waseca. Prison staff moved from wings with infected inmates, to inmates who had tested negative, without tight safety protocols, contributing to the spread.
"The Bureau of Prisons [at Waseca] has severely mishandled the pandemic and is putting these medically-vulnerable individuals at grave risk," wrote Dr. Mark David Sullivan, a critical care physician and executive medical director of his department at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. He submitted an affidavit after reviewing inmate affidavits.
"The ACLU is demanding that [the prison] live up to its responsibility to care for the inmates who are committed there," said Isabella Nascimento, a staff attorney with the ACLU who described the conditions as "horrific."
Malcolm, who is in the fourth year of a 15-year sentence for a drug conviction, was taken to the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Mankato, where she said a doctor told her, "My friend, I have to paralyze you and put you on a ventilator or you are going to die."
After 10 days, she was returned to the prison where she said she was so weak, she could not climb into bed and had to sleep on a mat on the floor. She said she is still sick, according to her affidavit.
The ACLU says in the suit that COVID-19 spread like "wildfire" through the prison.
"It felt like zombieland," inmate Carrie Casarez, 50, said in one affidavit. Casarez, who is serving 13 years on a drug conviction. She became infected with COVID-19 and was transferred to a unit with other infected inmates in mid-September.
Lavell Williams, 46, who is serving a 23-year prison sentence for a drug conviction, tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 31.
She said she was moved to a hospital wing where "inmates were packed in like sardines." Williams said she became so sick she could not climb into her own bed, which was in the top bunk, and had to sleep on the concrete floor. She kept asking for the blood pressure medication prescribed to her, but never received it.
"I only got a breathing treatment at night, and I had to do it in a little room that was cluttered with medical supplies and other things and had puddles on the floor," she wrote. "It was disgusting and not clean."
Williams said the prison's health services recommended she be released to home confinement and the warden approved, but a "super committee" of the Bureau of Prisons vetoed her release because of safety concerns, despite the fact that she has no violent crime convictions.
Many of the prisoners who contracted COVID were placed in a section of the prison normally used for punishment, and were treated as such, the suit says. They were put in dilapidated cold, concrete cells, required to wear uniforms worn only by prisoners who are being disciplined, were not allowed to have their own possessions with them or have access to phones to communicate with their families about their condition.
"A significant consequence of the [Waseca prison's] use of a disciplinary mechanism as an isolation unit is that it discourages reporting of symptoms, allowing the virus additional time to spread among the population before detection," Sullivan wrote.
A hearing on the motion for the temporary restraining order is scheduled Jan 6 before U.S. Judge Magistrate Leo Brisbois. Judge Michael Davis is assigned to the case.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224