DULUTH – An inmate at the Moose Lake prison who argued he should be released because of how the facility has handled COVID-19 has lost his case at the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Staff and administrators "were not indifferent, deliberately or otherwise, to the risks presented by the COVID-19 virus," the court ruled in an opinion issued Monday. "[They] had taken numerous measures to protect prisoners by minimizing the risks of infection."
The lawsuit was filed in April 2020 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which said at the time the Department of Corrections was "failing to fulfill its constitutional duty to keep people safe." The ACLU cited spotty mask-wearing, inadequate testing and a lack of social distancing — claims the department denied.
"We are pleased the court recognized the numerous measures we have taken to protect our incarcerated population," said Department of Corrections spokesperson Sarah Fitzgerald.
In July last year, a Carlton County judge dismissed the petition, which was filed on behalf of three men serving prison terms at Moose Lake.
Two of the men have since been released, so the appeal only concerned 44-year-old Adam D. Sanborn, who is serving a 65-month sentence for felony DWI, according to court records. The ACLU said last year he is a smoker with asthma and was "being held with people who have COVID-19 symptoms."
"I'm disappointed," said ACLU attorney Dan Shulman, who said he is still considering next steps for the case. "COVID has basically run wild since the case was dismissed, and we asked the court to take that into account."
Minnesota Appeals Court Judge Matthew Johnson wrote in Monday's ruling that "Sanborn's conditions of confinement are neither cruel nor unusual, and [staff and administrators] have not failed to comply with their statutory duties."
A similar ruling was handed down by the Appeals Court last week that found the Minnesota Sex Offender Program at Moose Lake "adopted numerous reasonable measures to reduce the exposure and spread of COVID-19 within the facility."
A man civilly committed there argued release was "the only way to avoid being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment."
Clients at the treatment center staged a 14-day hunger strike earlier this year to protest conditions. Three people have died from COVID-19 at the facility, according to the Department of Human Services.
Two Moose Lake Correctional Facility prisoners have died of COVID-19, and there have been 158 confirmed infections among inmates.
An additional 93 employees at the correctional facility have tested positive, according to the Department of Corrections. As of Monday there were 836 inmates on-site at the prison, which has a capacity of about 1,000 men.
Across all facilities, the Department of Corrections has reported more than 4,100 COVID-19 infections and 12 deaths due to the virus. The state's prison population has fallen to about 7,200 from more than 8,800 at the beginning of April 2020.
A total of 155 people have been released from state prisons under the COVID-19 medical release program — 28 of them at Moose Lake — and 213 were granted early work release, including 12 at Moose Lake, according to the department.
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496