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Minnesota ACLU's COVID lawsuit against Department of Corrections can move forward, judge rules

The lawsuit alleges the Minnesota Department of Corrections violated inmates rights through its handling of the pandemic.

A Ramsey County Court judge ruled Wednesday that the ACLU of Minnesota can go ahead with a lawsuit alleging the state’s COVID-19 approach in prisons violated inmates' constitutional rights.

Judge Sara Grewing ruled that all inmates in the Minnesota Department of Corrections can be included in the class action lawsuit, which was filed in October.

The ACLU of Minnesota can also add Gov. Tim Walz, the Minnesota Department of Health and MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm as defendants along with the DOC.

The lawsuit alleges that the DOC’s vaccination program violates state inmates’ constitutional rights to “equal protection, due process and protection against cruel or unusual punishment.”

The ACLU points to state vaccination rates for inmates, which show around 20% of Minnesota’s roughly 7,600 inmates are fully vaccinated.

Given the conditions of prisons, in which inmates live and work closely together, the numbers are “deeply troubling,” according to Grewing’s ruling.

“We are pleased and gratified by the Court’s decision, which will allow us to continue to press ahead vigorously to require the State to comply with its legal duty to protect those in its care and custody from COVID-19 so long as the pandemic is with us,” said ACLU of Minnesota staff attorney Dan Shulman in a statement.

The lawsuit also alleges that the DOC did not take adequate measures to protect inmates from COVID-19, including denying medical release to some inmates with underlying conditions.

“There has been one blind spot in Minnesota’s leadership on the COVID-19 pandemic: jails and prisons,” the lawsuit reads.

“In contrast to the speed with which Minnesota has followed public health officials’ other warnings, it has failed almost completely to act in any coordinated way to prevent COVID-19 from spreading rapidly through correctional facilities and overwhelming medical resources in nearby communities.”

According to Grewing’s ruling, the DOC told the court it would have all inmates vaccinated by April 9. Grewing wrote that the court will await verification on that promise. 

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