COVID-19: Lawsuit claims MN prison inmates aren't adequately protected

The ACLU-MN filed a class-action lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Corrections and its commissioner.
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The ACLU of Minnesota has filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the state of Minnesota hasn't adequately protected prison inmates from COVID-19. 

The organization filed the lawsuit Thursday in Ramsey County District Court against the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) and Commissioner Paul Schnell, alleging the DOC has failed to enact measures to stop or even slow the transmission of the coronavirus and has violated its legal obligation to protect people in its custody from the virus, a news release says.

“There has been a significant blind spot in Minnesota’s leadership on the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is its handling of the pandemic in prisons,” ACLU-MN staff attorney Dan Shulman said in a statement. “Not only does DOC’s failed track record further endanger Minnesotans, their families, and their communities, it also flies in the face of state law requiring the government to exercise reasonable care to safeguard people in its custody, and it violates the Minnesota Constitution by inflicting cruel or unusual punishment and denying due process before potentially depriving people of their lives.” 

The lawsuit lists several allegations of how the DOC failed to protect people. Among them: the DOC has denied medical release to people with conditions that put them at high risk; did not enforce social distancing throughout the prison system nor mask-wearing among staff; denied testing or access to a doctor to people who had symptoms; and confined people without the virus with those who were COVID-positive or had symptoms.

It also alleges poor ventilation in the prison leads to air recirculating between cells, potentially spreading the virus and that inmates aren't given access to hand sanitizer or cleaning supplies.

One plaintiff, Charles Jackson said in the lawsuit that he had to stay in an unsanitary sell while he was in prison in St. Cloud, telling the ACLU: “The cell [I was confined to] had feces on the floor and had obviously not been disinfected.

"This made me extremely nervous that I could easily get the virus," Jackson added. "I tried to clean the entire cell with towels the DOC provided me to shower with. I was not allowed to have cleaning supplies.” 

In a statement to Bring Me The News about the lawsuit, Schnell said:

“We acknowledge the health risks presented by COVID-19, and we take seriously our responsibility to provide individuals sentenced to prison an environment that is as safe as reasonably possible under these difficult circumstances."

DOC spokesperson Sarah Fitzgerald noted that staff have started reviewing the lawsuit, noting they only learned of it after being contacted by the media. 

The ACLU-MN previously filed a lawsuit in April over the conditions at the prison in Moose Lake, which a judge dismissed. The DOC argued it was taking all possible measures to slow the spread of the virus.

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The ACLU says data on the transmission rate in the state's prisons leads the organization to question whether the DOC is actually doing everything it can to protect inmates. 

According to the DOC's website, two inmates have died from COVID-19 and 937 inmates have tested positive or are presumed to be positive. 

The ACLU notes that the Faribault prison saw two deaths and more than 200 cases over the summer. Meanwhile, according to the DOC's website, the Stillwater prison earlier this month was placed on a medical lockdown to control the spread after an increase in cases. As of Oct. 21, the prison had 254 confirmed positive cases among inmates.

The DOC's website also lists the number of staff who have tested positive for COVID-19. As of Oct. 21, 237 people have tested positive and four have been hospitalized.

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