Incarceration During COVID-19
Because state prisons and local jails operate largely outside of the public eye, outbreaks of COVID-19 in these institutions has gone largely unnoticed since the beginning of the pandemic.
Active COVID-19 cases are now present in nearly every Minnesota prison.
Recent data on the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) website showing that approximately half of 7,000 inmates had contracted COVID-19 as of and eight have died of the disease.
Early in the pandemic, corrections officials and public health experts were in agreement that a key to reducing the chances of outbreaks in prisons and jails was to reduce inmate populations.
The state prison population in Minnesota is down 17 percent from early March; from about 8,800 to about 7,300 people currently. This is largely to DOC policies including expanding work release programs and returning fewer inmates to prison for violating parole, all in an effort to reduce COVID-19 numbers in its institutions.
The DOC also expanded its conditional medical release program â€“ allowing early release for seriously and terminally ill inmates â€“ to people especially at risk for COVID-19.
But despite ever-increasing COVID-19 numbers, of the more than 2,300 state prisoners who applied for a conditional medical release under the expansion, only 150 requests have been granted.
Recently, a Ramsey County judge issued an order requiring the DOC to show cause "why they should not be ordered to perform their legal duty" to keep prisoners safer during the pandemic.
The order criticized the DOC for its handling of the pandemic, citing the "staggering" rate of COVID-19 infections within the state prison system.
In a press release, the DOC responded to recent criticism by stating it has "taken all reasonable measures to protect incarcerated people in the state's prisons from COVID-19. The measures we have taken are consistent with those that have been upheld by courts throughout the country."
Prisons and jails as well as all closed institutional environments (such as nursing homes) are often amplifiers of infectious diseases including COVID-19 because social distancing is difficult if not impossible inside and movement in and out of the institutions by staff is common.Â
While DOC changes have been implemented in an effort to prevent COVID-19 deaths in its institutions, whether these changes have gone far enough will likely be decided by a Ramsey County judge on January 15, 2021.
Of course, the hearing will be held remotely due to the ongoing pandemic.
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