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Minnesota State and Federal Prisoners COVID Case Surge Sparks ACLU Lawsuit

As a result, the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action on October 22, 2020, against the Minnesota DOC, alleging that it has failed to take appropriate action to stem the tide of infection, illness, and death among the state’s vulnerable prisoners.

The Minnesota DOC had at the time the sixth-highest COVID-19 infection rate, with 4,051 known cases per 10,000 people, six times greater than the state.

This surge occurred even though the state was largely spared the virus’ surge in spring that afflicted the east and west coasts. Despite having fair warning, the state DOC failed to enforce guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The DOC’s Moose Lake facility was the first to bear the brunt of COVID-19, probably introduced by a prison employee. And the facility, as of December 4, had 12 hospitalizations and at least five deaths.

State Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said, “Losing a loved one is always difficult, but it’s especially painful under these circumstances, when the pandemic is claiming so many lives. Our hearts go out to his family, friends and all who will miss him.”

According to DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell, “Since the beginning of this pandemic, we’ve worked to take all reasonable steps to minimize the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in the state’s correctional facilities for the well-being of those we serve and our staff.”

After an initial delay, DOC finally instituted, “comprehensive testing of all incarcerated people and staff,” and other policies to stem the spread.

Nonetheless, the ACLU found much to criticize in the DOC’s response. The lawsuit alleged that there was a complete lack of social distancing, staff not wearing masks, unsanitary conditions, and prisoners being denied access to prompt testing and necessary medical care, not to mention isolated instances of staff mocking prisoners for their predicament.

According to one of the prisoners at the DOC Faribault facility, plaintiff Charles Jackson: “The cell (I was confined to) had feces on the floor and had obviously not been disinfected. This made me extremely nervous that I could easily get the virus. I tried to clean the cell with the towels DOC provided me to shower with. I was not allowed to have cleaning supplies.”

Other state facilities also had cases: 13 at Lino Lakes, 972 at Stillwater, and 12 at Oak Park Heights.

The ACLU lawsuit alleged failure on the part of the DOC to safeguard those individuals — failing to provide medical or compassionate release to people with medical conditions that put them at risk of death if they contracted COVID-19, as well as a failure to provide appropriate personal protective devices, failure to provide proper sanitation and to social distance, failure to quarantine infected individuals from the rest of the prison population, denying testing and basic medical care, and inappropriate staff behavior, including failure to wear masks and mocking vulnerable prisoners. See: Arnold Baker et al. v. Minnesota Department of Corrections, Case No. 62-CV-20-5143, U.S.D.C. (D. Minn.). 


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Related legal case

Arnold Baker et al. v. Minnesota Department of Corrections