A Ramsey County judge has blasted the Minnesota Department of Corrections for its handling of the pandemic, citing the "staggering" rate of COVID-19 infections within the state prison system.
District Judge Sara Grewing ordered the Corrections Department to appear in court on Jan. 15 and show cause "why they should not be ordered to perform their legal duty" to keep prisoners safer during the pandemic.
Grewing cited data on the department's website showing that 3,309 of roughly 7,000 inmates had contracted COVID-19 as of Wednesday and six had died of the disease. Corrections officials said Friday that two more inmates died Thursday.
"Most shockingly," Grewing wrote in her order, 977 inmates out of the 1,290 incarcerated at Stillwater prison had contracted COVID-19, and 637 inmates had tested positive at the St. Cloud prison, a figure that she noted was higher than the prison's current population.
"The statistics alone are sufficient to sustain a finding that there has been a failure within the department to address the spread of COVID-19," the judge wrote.
The department issued a statement Friday that it had "taken all reasonable measures to protect incarcerated people in the state's prisons from COVID-19. The measures we have taken are consistent with those that have been upheld by courts throughout the country."
Grewing issued her order in response to a class-action lawsuit filed Oct. 22 by the ACLU of Minnesota. The suit contends that Minnesota officials have "failed almost completely in any coordinated way" to stop the rapid spread of the infection within state correctional facilities and alleges that in the process medical resources in nearby communities have been overwhelmed.
In her order, Grewing called Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell "a dedicated public official who is committed to preserving public safety and serving those individuals who are incarcerated, as well as the families who love them." She cited the department's transparency in providing the latest information about COVID-19.
But she also noted that Minnesota ranked sixth in the nation for prison infection rates per capita, and that the prison rate was more than six times higher than the state's infection rate outside the prison system.
She also cited a statement by Dr. Susan Hasti of Hennepin Healthcare, provided by the ACLU when the suit was filed, that the Corrections Department had failed to educate prisoners to the dangers of airborne transmission of COVID-19.
Hasti found, according to Grewing, that the department had failed to adequately track and identify the most vulnerable of its prison population and to develop an effective process for removing them from harm before an outbreak surfaced inside prison walls.
Grewing said the ACLU made a sufficient argument that the department had failed "to perform a duty clearly imposed by law" — safeguarding individuals in its custody.
Dan Shulman, a staff lawyer with the state ACLU and lead attorney on the case, called Grewing's order "wonderful" and added that it was supported by the evidence. "It's timely and it's necessary," he said.
Corrections officials issued a news release Friday on the loss of two more inmates to COVID-19 — a 66-year-old man imprisoned in Faribault and a 63-year-old man at the Moose Lake corrections facility who died at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Their identities were being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
"This has been a difficult day for the Department of Corrections," said Schnell in the news release. "We extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of these men. We continue to do everything in our power to mitigate and contain the spread of COVID in our facilities."
The Faribault prison death is the fourth there related to COVID-19, and the Moose Lake death is its first one related to COVID. According to the department, Faribault had 621 COVID-positive incarcerated people out of 1,783 inmates along with 54 COVID-positive staffers, and Moose Lake had 45 COVID-positive inmates out of an inmate population of 929, plus 20 COVID-positive staffers.
Three other inmates in the state corrections system were in critical condition with COVID-19 and receiving ventilator treatment at outside hospitals, the department said. Several corrections employees also were hospitalized due to COVID.
In its news release, the department said it had conducted comprehensive testing of all inmates and staffers "and taken measures across the system to manage the risk of COVID-19 entering facilities," including mandatory mask policies and installation of hand-washing stations.
Shulman said the department should prioritize vaccinating all corrections personnel who come in contact with inmates, as well as any inmates who have not yet contracted COVID.
"Any new prisoners coming to the prisons should be vaccinated," he said, estimating that all such vaccinations would require about 10,000 doses.
The ACLU of Minnesota filed a class-action suit in April, alleging the failures of the Corrections Department to deal with the COVID-19 infections at the Moose Lake facility. St. Louis County District Judge Leslie Beiers dismissed that suit in July, saying the department understood its duties to inmates and had taken extensive measures to combat the virus.
Shulman said that since the dismissal of the suit, the number of cases at Moose Lake had exploded. The ACLU has appealed Beiers' dismissal of the suit, and a hearing is scheduled before the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Jan. 12.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224