Days after the first person who contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated died from complications of the disease, Minnesota’s jails and prisons received a D- for their response to the pandemic.
The failing grade is part of a joint study between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). Published Thursday, the study gave 49 states failing grades ranging from F, F+ and D-. Minnesota was one of nine states to receive a D-. Neighboring North Dakota received an F+ while South Dakota received an F. Wisconsin received an F+.
Those who are in the Minnesota Department of Corrections or oversee county jails disagree with the poor score, saying it does not take into account the steps being taken or makes unfair comparisons.
“Across the country, what we have found is that states — rather than paying attention to the pleas of families, the pleas of incarcerated people and advocates, and the advice of medical experts who have said, who have warned, that outbreaks in prisons and jails are going to hurt incarcerated people and boomerang out into the communities — rather than heed those warnings and display leadership and a sense of proportionality and mercy during this time, states are choosing to claim they have the situation handled,” PPI spokeswoman Wanda Bertram said.
“The conclusion that we’ve come to in looking at the national picture of what’s been achieved and what’s not been achieved, is just that states don’t care,” she said. “They are taking advantage of the fact that most people don't think about incarcerated folks and their families to really turn a blind eye to what’s going on in jails and prisons and you have people dying every day as a result of that.”
State corrections officials have announced within the past week that two inmates at the prison in Faribault have died. Both tested positive for COVID-19. One incarcerated person in Minnesota remains hospitalized, they said.
In calculating the scores, the two organizations looked at five main criteria: does the state’s Department of Corrections provide testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) to correctional staff and the incarcerated population; did the state reduce county jail populations and state prison populations?; is the state testing all staff and incarcerated individuals?; did the governor issue an executive order — or the Department of Corrections issue a directive — accelerating the release from state prisons of medically vulnerable individuals and/or those near the end of their sentence?; and does the state published regularly updated, publicly available data on COVID-19 in the state prison system.
The vast majority of the points are assigned to how the number of people who are incarcerated has been reduced.
A Minnesota Department of Corrections spokesman said the department has taken "pretty aggressive steps to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in the facilities" and said the study did not take those steps into account when calculating the state's score.
Three categories -- testing, PPE, and available data -- account for almost the same as executive orders. Minnesota prisons received all points available for providing masks to all staff and incarcerated individuals. As of June 26, 11,274 coronavirus tests have been given to incarcerated people or approximately 94% of those incarcerated, according to DOC spokesman Nicholas Kimball.
The state also received full points for making data publicly available, but did not receive points because the state does not provide information on cases that give demographic information.
Kimball said the state prison population has been reduced from more than 8,900 people on March 1 to fewer than 8,000. Kimball said the prison population is at a level it hasn’t been at since the mid-2000s. The decreased number of incarcerated people had been reduced through a number of factors, Kimball said, highlighting the change to avoid sending people back to prison on technical violations, expanding the work release program and allowing for conditional medical release under COVID-19.
A total of 64 people have been released on a conditional medical release due to COVID-19, according to Kimball. In 2019, there were just six releases for conditional medical release.
Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, who also serves as the president of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association Board of Directors, said it was not a fair comparison looking at state prisons and county jails together. Dunn said he believes a majority of the county jails were average in their response, rather than failing.
“I think we did a good job across the state as far as jails as far as reducing the number to minimize the amount of people we are monitoring in our jails,” Dunn said.
Dunn said it has been a balancing act trying to protect those held in county jails as well as the public and that the “magic line” to say who should or shouldn’t be in jail has been difficult at times to locate.
Dylan Hayre, a campaign strategist for ACLU’s Justice Division, said it is not too late to do something.
“Frankly, we don’t get to choose the end of that story and incarcerated people don't get to choose the end of that story,” Hayre said. “But state actors, governors and system leaders can choose. They can choose how the story will end by taking action now. And they can make a better end. We can get out of this, or at least begin to address it more forcefully than we are.”