As cases remain high at a number of federal prisons in Minnesota, those with family and friends serving sentences there continue to be concerned.
At the Federal Corrections Institute Waseca, which houses 599 women, approximately 74% of the population, or 446 women, either has the coronavirus or has had it.
“FCI Waseca has experienced an increase in the number of inmates who are positive with COVID-19 and therefore placed the majority of its inmate population in quarantine and isolation,” a Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman wrote in an email to the Post Bulletin.
A woman who asked to be identified by her middle name, Jean, over concerns that she could face punishment for speaking out while on federal probation, said she received a message from a friend who is still incarcerated in Waseca that there is “absolutely no social distancing available to us due to the way they have crammed us all in here.”
Jean said other friends report that some of the women who test positive are being housed together in the prison’s recreation center. Jean said that in the Sept. 25 message, her friend felt “they are just putting us all in here to die.”
A BOP spokesman wrote in an email that they do not provide details on specific housing units for safety and security reasons, but that FCI Waseca has designated areas for medical isolation, including overflow space in areas other than housing units.
“The use of overflow space may be utilized as a temporary measure to separate inmates who have tested positive; however, no inmates are currently housed in an overflow space,” the spokesman wrote.
For Lynda Woods, sleepless nights became the norm after her daughter, who is serving a sentence at FCI Waseca, tested positive for coronavirus on Sept. 22. When Woods talked to the Post Bulletin on Oct. 1, she said her daughter was expecting to be moved off the quarantine unit soon. The 10-day quarantine her daughter expected lasted 14 days, and Woods said Thursday that her daughter was in the process of being moved off quarantine
“It’s scary what they are going through,” said Woods, of Illinois. “I know they are in jail and everything, but they should still have their rights.”
Attorney JaneAnne Murray, who also runs the Clemency Project at the University of Minnesota Law School, has represented a number of women held at FCI Waseca who’ve requested compassionate release. She said her clients write to her that they are very, very scared and they perceive the prison staff to be very scared, too.
“One of their biggest fears is new prisoners arriving from another institution, and the movement of prisoners around the facility, which can spread the infection to areas that are currently COVID-19-free,” Murray said. “It is a very stressful, unpredictable situation, and potentially a powder-keg.”
A BOP spokesman wrote that while the bureau can control and limit its intra-agency movements, it has no authority to refuse inmates brought by the U.S. Marshals Service.
“I don’t doubt that the warden and staff are doing everything they can but this is a herculean task to try to isolate all these individuals with COVID from each other so they are not reinfecting each other and infecting those who currently test negative, and making sure all those with symptoms get the treatment they deserve,” Murray said. “It’s a monumental task.”
By the numbers
According to a data analysis by The Marshall Project, from March 1 to May 31, federal prison wardens denied or ignored more than 98 percent of compassionate release requests.
“Of the 10,940 federal prisoners who applied for compassionate release from March through May, wardens approved 156,” The Marshall Project, a nonprofit online publication covering criminal justice, reported.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons posts on its website that under the First Step Act, 1,752 inmates have been approved for compassionate releases or reduction in sentences. It is unclear from that data when the releases began and how many occurred during the pandemic. The First Step Act was signed on Dec. 21, 2018.
In addition to compassionate release, some inmates have been released from federal prisons to serve the rest of their sentence on home confinement. Since March 26, the BOP has placed 7,822 people on home confinement, the bureau posted on its coronavirus update page on Oct. 8.
COVID-19 has been attributed to the deaths of 125 federal inmates and two BOP staff members. None of the deaths of inmates or staff have occurred in Minnesota.
The virus arrived in Minnesota’s federal prisons in June when the first case was reported at the Federal Prison Camp Duluth on June 18 when an inmate tested positive. On June 27, Federal Correctional Institute Sandstone recorded its first inmate case and three days later, FCI Waseca reported its first case. On Aug. 20, the first inmate with COVID-19 was reported at Rochester Federal Medical Center.
Since Aug. 11, Waseca has consistently reported cases of coronavirus among inmates. On Sept. 28, 241 women had active cases of the virus -- a peak for the facility.
Staff members at the facilities are not immune. On Oct. 8, three staff at the Rochester FMC and one at FCI Waseca had the virus. Between the two facilities, 20 staff members have recovered from the virus, according to BOP data.
Rochester FMC reached its highest case count to date on Thursday with 32 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates.
Compassionate release is one way that a person can be released from prison before their sentence is scheduled to end. The releases are reserved for the elderly, terminally ill, or those inmates with an incurable, progressive illness or who have suffered a debilitating injury from which they will not recover.
A person must first apply to their facility's warden for approval. After 30 days, whether or not the warden responds, the person can then apply for compassionate release through the federal court system.
Whether an individual applies for compassionate release to the prison’s warden or through the court system, Murray said it’s not easy to be granted release.
It is not necessarily that wardens are being callous or thoughtless, but the criteria to qualify for compassionate release is very stringent, Murray said. One of those criteria is the ability to provide self-care in a prison environment.
“If a prisoner has a COVID vulnerability such as diabetes, a body mass index of 30 or more, or some kind of respiratory illness, they are unable to manage this chronic condition effectively, because self-care in the COVID-19 world involves social distancing and you just cannot effectively social distance in a prison,” Murray said. “It’s just very difficult to maintain the kind of social distancing in prison that the rest of us are managing on the outside. Even if you confine yourself to your ‘pod,’ that is, the group of people housed in your cell, there are still communal areas, such as the showers, the bathrooms, the places with computers and telephones, the television space, for example.”
The University of Minnesota Law School’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law & Criminal Justice recently received a grant to study prison release policies at the state level.
The goal of the project, research scholar Julia Laskorunsky said, was to analyze how states responded to the pandemic and whether existing systems allowed for the release of enough people to make a difference in curbing the spread.
While the study will mainly focus on state systems, Laskorunsky said both the federal and state systems realized very quickly they didn’t have a great way to respond. The federal prison system, Laskorunsky said, has not done well but it has done better than a lot of states.
“It’s still so unsatisfactory,” she said. “It still has contributed to so many people being sick and the deaths of inmates and correctional officers.”