A Minnesota judge backed prisoners’ claims that the state Department of Corrections has thus far failed to meet its legal duty to keep them safe from the rapidly spreading coronavirus and ordered the agency to provide just cause for why it can’t.

“That the government is obliged to provide medical care for those who are incarcerated is elementary,” Sixth District Judge Leslie Beiers wrote in a Wednesday afternoon ruling, adding that the criminal justice system must assume some responsibility for those in its custody.

The order comes amid a court battle between the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU), which recently sued for the early release of prisoners endangered by a growing outbreak of COVID-19 behind bars.

So far, 33 Moose Lake inmates have tested positive for the respiratory disease, and another 31 are presumed positive based on symptoms. At least 29 Moose Lake employees also self-reported falling ill with the virus. An officer stationed there remains hospitalized in serious condition near Duluth, where he’s on a ventilator.

A surge in testing at correctional facilities across the state uncovered a spike in confirmed cases — more of than a third of which originated in people who were asymptomatic. In the two weeks since the ACLU filed its petition, infections of inmates and staff quintupled at Moose Lake and exploded at nearby Willow River prison.

“Certainly, the challenges posed by the contagion are substantially beyond MNDOC’s experience,” Judge Beiers wrote. “Nonetheless, its duty to [implement reasonable measures] is clear. The allegations in the Petition … demonstrate that thus far, MNDOC has not met its duty.”

The judge wrote that her opinion was based on information provided by the ACLU.

The department must file a written response by May 11, addressing why it should not be ordered to provide “appropriate testing, social distancing, and medical treatment.” A virtual hearing is also scheduled for May 19.

In a statement, the agency defended what it called “reasonable and necessary” steps taken to reduce transmission inside its prisons and noted that the judge has not yet seen contradictory evidence to the ACLU’s claims.

“We look forward to providing an accounting of the DOC’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts at the Moose Lake facility and across the system,” the statement read. A daily virus tracker and information about response efforts at all 11 prisons can be found on the department’s website at mn.gov/doc.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the ACLU applauded the order but cautioned that necessary systemic changes are not coming fast enough.

“We feel it is imperative to direct full attention to where so many confirmed cases actually are,” said staff Attorney Dan Shulman. “While we are hopeful this case will set a precedent for the entire system, you can’t improve the neighborhood when a house is on fire.”

Only 26 prisoners have been discharged under the department’s expanded work-release program since the pandemic began in March. For weeks, pressure has mounted for the state to thin its prison population — as many county jails have — by releasing hundreds of non­violent, elderly and medically vulnerable inmates to slow the virus’ spread.

On Wednesday, the ACLU joined 34 other social justice organizations calling on Gov. Tim Walz to issue an executive order releasing prisoners on home monitoring if they are 55 or older, immunocompromised, have less than a year left on their sentence or back in prison on a technical violation, meaning they didn’t commit a new crime.

Last month, Walz said he was open to using an executive order to free nonviolent inmates who are within six months of their anticipated release dates should the Legislature fail to act on the issue. A bill seeking to expand Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell’s authority to place low-risk inmates on supervised release died after Sen. Warren Limmer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, declined to hear it in his chamber.

A caravan of protesters targeted Limmer’s house in Maple Grove on Saturday afternoon, honking as they circled the block in their cars with signs that said, “Shame on you!”

While Schnell says he’s sympathetic to those who fear for the safety of incarcerated loved ones, he must be judicious on how people are released into the community.

“We have to make sure we’re not creating another public health concern,” Schnell told the Star Tribune on Wednesday. “There’s no rule book on this.”