The first Minnesota prison inmate tested positive for COVID-19 on March 30 at the prison in Moose Lake. Ten days later, the MN Department of Corrections (DOC) website shows 12 inmates tested at Moose Lake, with nine tested positive, one negative, and two tests still pending results. At least eight Moose Lake correctional officers have also tested positive. The MN DOC website has just added a new column for “Presumed positive” for people “based on symptoms and having close contact to a person confirmed positive through testing.” There are 23 “presumed positive” inmates in Moose Lake.
The 23 “presumed positive” inmates probably will not be tested at all.
An article from The Lens in Louisiana describes a federal prison in Oakdale, LA with a major outbreak of COVID-19. The federal Bureau of Prisons stopped testing there due to what they call “sustained transmission.” That seems to be what guards and inmates call “overrun with the virus.” Testing is halted because they are sure the new cases have COVID-19 and they want “to conserve valuable testing resources.”
Back to Moose Lake: nine tested positive plus 23 presumed infected gives a total of 31 COVID-19 cases among inmates—nearly three percent of the population.
Think about that number. How big is the city where you live? What would three percent of the population look like? Would there be one infection in every block of single-family homes? One on every two or three floors of an apartment building? How fast would the virus spread?
The Moose Lake prison has 1,075 beds and a current population of 1,038. Prisoners are held in eight “general living” units plus the segregation unit. Cells range in size from single cells to eight-person cells.
Social distancing inside prisons is impossible. You can’t keep six feet of distance while living in a cell with even one person when beds are an arms-length apart. An eight-person cell means eight times the exposure. Phones and email kiosks are used by one inmate after another to talk to their families. Individuals from the various units normally mingle for dining, education, and work activities. Correctional officers come and go daily, each one a potential vector the virus. They may encounter the virus on streets, in grocery stores, and throughout communities outside and bring it in to the crowded and confined inside of the prison.
MN DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell described prison to MPR’s Tom Crann as “sort of like a dry dock cruise.” We have all heard how viruses spread through cruise ships. Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County, IL Board of Commissioners said it another way: “Our jails are petri dishes.” (Biology class refresher: Petri dishes provide a friendly, closed environment for bacteria or viruses or other micro-organisms to grow and multiply.)
In an attempt to stop or slow the spread of COVID-19 at Moose Lake, a “Stay With Unit” order now keeps inmates within their own unit, with further restrictions on yard time, phone, and email access. The gym is off-limits, as it is being used for recovering inmates who are still under quarantine.
The way to reduce exposure is to reduce prison population density through early release. MN DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell told MPR that some releases could happen “as early as next week,” but would be restricted to prisoners who are within 90 days of their regularly scheduled release date. The same article said releases would total about 50 per month for the entire state.
Minnesota’s prison population totaled 9,381 as of January 1. Fifty early releases is nowhere near enough to make a difference in these prison petri dishes.