When it comes to COVID-19, Minnesota's prisons were caught with their guard down. Facilities with cramped cells, inadequate ventilation and poorly defined protocols made the state's prisons breeding grounds for the virus.
Nearly 4,000 prisoners have tested positive for the virus and, as of March 30, 12 have died.
During a months-long investigation, Post Bulletin reporter Nora Eckert identified the failings of a system ill-equipped for the pandemic and the frustrations and panic of a prison population that felt sentenced to death.
Takeaways from Eckert's reporting:
- Minnesota Department of Corrections prisons were poised for failure even before the pandemic struck. The prison population was nearing capacity, leaving little room for distancing or quarantine, and many facilities had poor ventilation.
- Still, the DOC failed to innovate. They decided not to add outdoor tents for quarantining inmates or correctional officers due to security concerns, even though prisons across the country found ways to do so.
- The department was especially ill-prepared for the second wave that swept across the state in November, even after observing the surge infect populations in other areas of the country.
- The conditional medical release program, which allows for early release of prisoners who have grave medical conditions, was adapted for COVID-19 but rarely used. Of the 2,292 inmates who applied for medical release, 157 were approved. The majority (57%) of those denied were on the basis that they did not have a serious enough medical condition, but about a quarter of applicants were denied because they were deemed a risk to public safety.
- The commissioner has final say about who gets released. Shockingly, in 151 cases where the board of public safety reviewers unanimously agreed the inmate was eligible for release, Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell denied it. One advocate called it a “punch in the gut.”
So where does that leave us?
The Office of the Ombuds for Corrections annual report released in January contained five recommendations for the Legislature to consider in an effort to reduce the number of people held in jails and state prisons in light of COVID-19’s spread.
That seems like a good place to start. Whether or not you sympathize with the inmates in our state prisons, we all can acknowledge that nobody in Minnesota should be sentenced to death by COVID-19.