Prisons: Petri Dish for Pandemic


Coronavirus from Wikimedia Commons

In a “socially distant protest,” people rallied in their cars outside the governor’s mansion on Summit Avenue in St. Paul on Friday, calling for the release of inmates from Minnesota jails and detention centers. They livestreamed the protest to one another and to others in their homes and delivered a petition with more than 800 signatures. The protest is part of a growing national movement to release nonviolent offenders, those on work release, those who are particularly medically vulnerable, those with only a short time left on their sentences, and those who are awaiting trial but cannot post bond.

A prison doctor in Los Angeles wrote that “Prisons are petri dishes for contagious respiratory illnesses.”

The Minnesota Department of Corrections (MN DOC) has tested 17 inmates as of March 27, with 10 negative test results and 7 still pending. So far, no positive tests, but that is likely only a matter of time and broader testing. MN DOC needs to act now to release as many prisoners as possible, so that we do not face the situation of Rikers Island in New York.

On March 17, New York DOC officials said there were no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in city jails. The very next day one incarcerated person and a prison guard were confirmed with the virus. Four days later, 21 prisoners and 17 employees at Rikers Island tested positive for the virus. Yesterday (March 27), the number of Rikers Island prisoners with COVID-19 had soared to 103, with 80 correctional officers also infected.

A New York judge ordered the release of at least 16 inmates on March 26, due to age and medical conditions, saying that keeping. them in jail during the pandemic violated their due process rights.
MN DOC has a page with extensive information on COVID-19 for families of inmates. The page says the Commissioner is “actively considering” limited release plans, but even those very limited plans have not yet been implemented.

“Are incarcerated people with either a) medical conditions, or b) close release dates being considered for early release? The focus of all of us is minimizing risk of COVID-19 exposure and protecting safety and life. We are looking at all available tools to protect the health and safety of our staff, the people incarcerated, and those under supervision. We are exploring ways we can manage the population of incarcerated people – that includes impacting the number of people incarcerated and thinking about ways we can manage the living arrangements inside the facilities. The Commissioner has authority to grant conditional medical release and to grant work release status to those who qualify. He is actively considering how he can exercise that authority in a way that protects communities but that also helps to minimize risk for those who are incarcerated.”

Meanwhile, fear grows inside Minnesota prisons. Prisoners are confined to small cells with one or two or three other persons. They sit shoulder to shoulder at mealtimes. Social distancing inside a prison is not possible.

Minnesota prisons are already short-staffed, and that will grow worse as correctional officers fall ill. Medical care is already inadequate and will be completely overwhelmed as prisoners fall ill. Because of the utter impossibility of “social distancing” and of good hygiene and sanitation, once the virus arrives in a Minnesota prison, it will spread beyond control.

I have a personal interest in this. My brother Kevin is incarcerated in a MN DOC prison. He writes:

“It’s not news that the criminal justice system is broken from being overburdened. It doesn’t make sense to subject the MNDOC’s already woefully inadequate health care system and the incarcerated to another test that the healthcare system and people outside the fence can’t handle.”

The newly-appointed MN DOC Ombudperson Mark Haase writes:

” I am concerned, however, that we may not be doing enough, nor moving quickly enough, to lower the populations in our prisons and jails. There is no standard that I am aware of for how much we should do so. But the lower we can get the population, the more we can protect the safety of inmates, staff, and our communities. Fewer individuals entering facilities will reduce the likelihood of the virus being introduced to facilities and potentially later brought back into the outside community; and a lower population overall will allow for individuals and groups to be isolated and quarantined as needed. The number of single cells may be one measure to consider, but we must also consider the fact that staffing resources could be significantly reduced by illness. We do not want to create a situation where entire facilities are locked down for long indefinite periods of time; and the monitoring of symptoms in inmates, especially considering what we know about the progression of COVID-19, will require additional staffing.”

Prisoners nearing the end of their sentences or eligible for any kind of work release or early release should be released immediately to community supervision. All nonviolent offenders should be considered for release to community supervision. We must act now. Reducing the prison population is not only a protection for prisoners, but also a protection for the communities in which those prisons are located and for the entire population of Minnesota.


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