The Minnesota Department of Corrections is urging the state courts to hold all hearings for inmates remotely, after some judges insisted they appear in-person, increasing the risk for spreading the coronavirus.
"As you can surely appreciate, transferring prisoners between state correctional facilities, county jails, and courthouses presents serious risks of introducing COVID-19 into state prisons, where it could spread rapidly and to other inmates as well as correctional staff who are absolutely essential to provide security during this pandemic," DOC Deputy Commissioner for Organizational Services Michelle Smith wrote in a e-mail dated Wednesday.
Smith sent the e-mail to Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and State Court Administrator Jeff Shorba.
Smith pleaded with them to take "immediate action" to rectify the situation. Smith wrote that although Gildea issued a previous order allowing inmates to appear for hearings via teleconference instead of in-person, some judges "have insisted upon the transport of prisoners to court and denied ITV (interactive video teleconference) requests."
Smith did not specify which judges or in which counties the in-person appearances were being demanded. She noted that "many" judges have agreed to either continue inmates' hearings or hold them via teleconference.
"Given the inconsistent applications by district courts … we respectfully request that you take immediate action," Smith wrote. "We urge you to issue an amended order that requires all hearings for those already in state prisons to be conducted remotely, including by ITV, or suspended until this public health crisis is over."
DOC facilities are equipped to hold teleconference hearings, Smith added.
Smith warned that the Minnesota Department of Health told the DOC that inmates being admitted or readmitted into facilities after being outside should be quarantined for 14 days.
"The DOC does not have the capacity to quarantine every offender that may need to appear for a court hearing for that length of time," she wrote.
Kyle Christopherson, a spokesman for the State Court Administrator's Office, confirmed that Gildea received the letter.
"We have been in communication with our chief judges [of all 10 judicial districts] and are working to address the concerns," he said, declining to provide further details.
Twin Cities courtrooms have already begun building infrastructure to increase the use of remote hearings that would eliminate the need for jail inmates to appear in person for arraignment.
"You could then just sit at your computer and beam in to make the court appearance," said Ramsey County Chief Public Defender Jim Fleming. "I operate under the assumption that [court administrators] are taking the due care to make sure no one is being unnecessarily exposed."
But some criminal justice advocates oppose the widespread use of virtual courtrooms via ITV because they believe the technology can be "dehumanizing" to defendants.
Andrew Gordon, associate director of the Legal Rights Center, said his organization has historically opposed teleconference hearings because it limits the ability to communicate with clients directly and, therefore, advocate zealously on their behalf.
And now that visitation is indefinitely suspended at Minnesota prisons, appearing in court is likely the only opportunity inmates have to see family members in person.
"… That's a significant boon for the individual," Gordon said. "To take that away further isolates and further distances them."
Instead, Gordon says corrections officials can mitigate the risk of exposure by issuing conditional medical releases of nonviolent prisoners who are at high risk of contracting the virus, as well as limiting the number of officers used to transport inmates to court.
Those recommendations mirror recent demands by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which called on Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell and Gov. Tim Walz to reduce overcrowding inside jail and prisons — populations that suffer from disproportionately high rates of chronic illness.
The virus had infected 287 Minnesotans as of Wednesday, and upended nearly every aspect of life across the state, country and world.
Gildea began issuing several orders starting March 13 to limit the possibility of exposure to inmates, court staff, attorneys and the public. She issued more dramatic restrictions in an order Friday, postponing all new trials until at least April 22.
While Gildea's orders have strongly encouraged that hearings be held remotely when possible, they have also allowed the option of holding them in-person at a judge's discretion.