The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU) is suing the state Department of Corrections to push for the early release of prisoners endangered by a growing outbreak of COVID-19 behind bars.

The petition for writs of habeas corpus and mandamus, filed Wednesday in Carlton County District Court, alleges that the agency failed its "constitutional duty to keep people safe" and has stopped testing inmates for the virus inside Moose Lake prison — now one of the largest known hot spots of infections in the state.

"One of our ultimate goals is to get that population lowered, and we're running out of time," said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU. "This is a serious public health crisis for the entire community."

So far, 12 Moose Lake inmates have tested positive for the respiratory disease, and another 31 are presumed positive based on symptoms. At least 11 Moose Lake employees also self-reported falling ill with the virus. Two officers stationed there are hospitalized with COVID-19 near Duluth — one of whom remains in intensive care on a ventilator.

A DOC spokesman disputed the ACLU's claim that the agency has stopped testing inside Moose Lake, saying no such decision has been made. Two tests are pending from that facility.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said in a statement that the agency collaborated with the state Department of Health to develop prevention efforts and the department is working to expand early work and medical release to help thin the prison populations statewide.

The ACLU partnered with the State Public Defender's Office to represent three Moose Lake prisoners, Roger Foster, Kristopher Mehle and Adam Dennis Sanborn. Foster has been exhibiting coronavirus symptoms since early April but was refused a test. The department does not test everyone who shows symptoms; many are simply presumed positive based on known contact with individuals whose results came back positive.

The petition demands that corrections officials take immediate steps to release the three named plaintiffs and increase efforts to protect the health of staff and inmates. The ACLU also wants the court to appoint a "special master" to oversee the implementation of those reforms.

"There's over 1,000 people in the facility and we know you can't social distance when there's that many people in one place," Nelson said during a phone interview. The petition criticized the department's response to the initial outbreak, claiming that administrators were slow to implement even "rudimentary" mitigation measures and allowed the virus to "spread nearly unchecked."

Earlier this month, the agency began producing its own cotton face masks to distribute to roughly 14,000 staff and inmates. But those who work and live inside facilities across the state tell the Star Tribune that they are infrequently worn.

Dozens of Moose Lake prisoners are reportedly sick but reluctant to seek medical attention for fear of being placed in solitary confinement and losing privileges. "I was being disciplined," said inmate Terrell Davis, who was recently quarantined in segregation after coming down with COVID-like symptoms. He says he begged for a test but never received one.

After jails pre-emptively slashed inmate populations by nearly half last month, pressure mounted for the DOC to release hundreds of non­violent, elderly and medically vulnerable prisoners at the highest risk of contracting coronavirus.

Criminal justice advocates and family members of the incarcerated see this as a potential life-or-death issue for individuals with chronic health problems, who are trapped inside unsanitary facilities where social distancing is not possible and health care is limited.

The lawsuit comes as the state agency prepares to discharge 14 prisoners this week under the department's expanded work release program. A pregnant inmate was the first to be granted early release last month over health concerns related to COVID-19.