The conditions at the federal women's prison in Waseca, Minn., where COVID-19 has infected at least 70% of the inmates, did not rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment, a U.S. magistrate judge ruled Friday.

Magistrate Leo Brisbois denied a motion sought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota for a temporary restraining order. He also denied a motion to release 14 inmates to home confinement, saying the federal court lacks the authority to take such action.

Brisbois' decision is not the final word. It comes in the form of a recommendation to U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, who must weigh the arguments and issue a decision.

Under court procedures, the inmates can file an objection within 14 days. Teresa Nelson, legal director of the state ACLU, said there are eight attorneys representing the prisoners, and they will meet to decide whether to recommend to their clients whether an objection should be filed.

Brisbois also dismissed the ACLU's request for a temporary restraining order that would set in motion the inmates' release. The ACLU is seeking to have the suit declared a class action which could allow other prisoners to also be released.

The suit argued that the Waseca prison should not have taken in new prisoners transferred from a jail in Oklahoma where COVID-19 had been widespread. The virus then spread through the prison "like wildfire" during September, and Waseca authorities were unprepared, ignoring social distancing protocols, proper masking and cleaning, and allowed very sick inmates to languish without proper care, the ACLU alleged.

For the most part, Brisbois sided with the account laid out by prison officials, who contended they took decisive action to clamp down on the pandemic. He found unpersuasive the anecdotal information contained in more than 300 pages of documents submitted by the ACLU.

"Even if assuming for the sake of argument that [prison officials'] conduct demonstrates gross negligence and medical malpractice, under controlling Eighth Circuit precedent this still cannot support a claim of cruel and unusual punishment," Brisbois wrote.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution states, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

Brisbois wrote that the ACLU is not claiming that prison officials did not have policies in place to combat the spread of COVID-19. He said the ACLU seemed to be arguing that prison authorities should maintain perfect compliance with its policies, but "perfect compliance is not constitutionally required."

Brisbois also noted that at the time of a Jan. 6 hearing on the suit, there was only one inmate with an active case of COVID-19 at the correctional facility in Waseca.

"The limitation of a highly infectious disease to a single active case in a prison setting cannot in any reasonable way be viewed as a 'deliberate indifference' to [inmates'] serious medical need," Brisbois wrote.

ACLU attorneys had argued the reason infections were now so low at the prison was because 450 inmates, the large majority, had already contracted the coronavirus.

Brisbois also wrote that inmates who seek to be released under a program authorized by Congress must approach their individual sentencing judge, and that the court lacked the jurisdiction to order the release of a large group of prisoners.

The ACLU contended it was appropriate to release a large group of inmates without a history of violence but who were especially vulnerable because of the systemic failure by officials to control the virus.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224