The ACLU of Minnesota is suing the Minnesota Department of Corrections for the early release of some prisoners amid the worsening spread of the coronavirus at MCF-Moose Lake.
In a petition filed on Wednesday, the ACLU says that the prison southwest of Duluth is "failing to fulfill its constitutional duty to keep people safe," alleging it is still holding up to 8 men in a single cell and permitting "unrestricted access to showers, communal phones, vending machines and other facilities" despite multiple cases of COVID-19 having been confirmed in inmates.
It is suing on behalf of three inmates, two of whom have release dates within 180 days or less, and the third who has been showing symptoms of COVID-19 since early April, but the prison allegedly "refuses to test him" despite him being a smoker with asthma.
It comes during a worsening situation at Moose Lake, which now has 12 inmates who have tested positive for the coronavirus, a further 31 who are "presumed positive" based on symptoms, while 11 prison staff have self-reported falling ill with the virus, per the ACLU.
The ACLU also says that two correctional officers have been hospitalized with the virus, one of whom is in the ICU on a ventilator.
It claims that the virus is now in "every unit of the prison" and as a result the prison is allegedly refusing to test inmates unless their cases are severe. Meanwhile, those who have tested positive are being housed in "segregation," causing other inmates to fear coming forward with symptoms.
It also claims social distancing policies weren't implemented until Mar. 26, ten days after the state's schools and bars/restaurants closed, and that some correctional officers and inmates on cleaning detail don't have protective equipment.
"The ACLU of Minnesota is suing because the prison and DOC have failed to perform their legal and moral duty to keep the people in their custody safe," said ACLU-MN staff attorney Dan Shulman on Wednesday. "Prisoners tell us that people are jammed into cells with others who have symptoms of COVID-19, and the prison refuses to perform adequate testing.
"The prison and DOC have failed to take even rudimentary measures to prevent and stop the spread of COVID-19 at Moose Lake, endangering inmates, staff and the surrounding communities. Detention should not mean a death sentence."
The ACLU fears that unless action is taken at Moose Lake, the virus could spread to the wider prison population, which numbers more than 1,000.
This in turn could "overwhelm" the rural health system, with the ACLU noting that local hospitals in Moose Lake and Cloquet have 102 beds between them, six of them ICU.
The Minnesota Department of Health has previously said it's been working with the DOC to isolate infected inmates or those suspected of infections from others.
A DOC spokesperson told the Star Tribune that it hasn't made a decision to stop testing at Moose Lake, contrary to the ACLU's claim.
Prisons are considered congregate living settings, and as such testing should be prioritized for those living in such situations according to health department guidelines.