A Minnesota judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections claiming the state agency failed to adequately protect prisoners from a growing coronavirus outbreak behind bars, ruling that evidence does not support "deliberate indifference" toward inmate safety.
In her Monday order, Judge Leslie Beiers wrote that prison officials have for months "taken the threat seriously and responded with reasonable and appropriate steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to identify, isolate and treat those who have contracted the disease."
Beiers cited a litany of preventive measures taken by the DOC, including distributing extra soap, suspension of in-person visitation, mandatory screening of staff entering detention facilities and the required use of cloth masks, as proof that the department worked to slow transmission of the rapidly spreading virus.
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell applauded the decision, but vowed to continue coordinating with health experts on containment strategies.
"We remain fully aware of our constitutional obligation to provide humane care for those who are in our custody," he said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU) sued the prison system in April to push for the early release of inmates housed in Moose Lake — once among the state's largest hot spots for infections. The organization alleged the DOC had failed its "constitutional duty to keep people safe" by lax enforcement of social distancing protocols and its initial refusal to test all individuals who exhibited symptoms. A surge in testing at correctional facilities across the state later uncovered a spike in confirmed cases — more of than a third of which originated in people who were asymptomatic. Two weeks after the ACLU filed its petition, infections of inmates and staff quintupled at Moose Lake and exploded at nearby Willow River prison.
Since the outbreak began, 351 total prisoners have tested positive for the respiratory disease and two have died. At least 71 employees also fell ill from the virus, but the vast majority of them have since returned to duty.
ACLU Attorney Dan Shulman expressed disappointment with Monday's ruling, lamenting that an evidentiary hearing was never held to weigh the veracity of the DOC's claims, so Beiers made her decision based on conflicting court filings.
"You can't cross-examine a document," he said. "I think the judge went off the rails a bit, used the wrong standard [of proof] and unfairly painted the evidence."
He promised to appeal the case. Despite the ruling, Shulman believes litigation ultimately pressured the DOC to accelerate the release of nonviolent and medically vulnerable inmates most endangered by the pandemic and re-examine its mitigation efforts throughout the state.
More than 214 prisoners have been granted early release — most through expanded work or conditional medical release programs — since March. A significant number of those individuals were formally discharged in the last four weeks.
But criminal justice advocates argue that isn't enough. Earlier this month, dozens protested outside Schnell's home in Mendota Heights to call for the expedited release of the elderly, immunocompromised and those with less than a year left on their sentence.
"No new deaths," they chanted.