Correctional facilities struggle to keep inmates safe from COVID-19

In a place where almost every space is communal prisons and correctional facilities encounter countless obstacles in order to keep inmates safe from rapidly spreading disease.


Minnesota Department of Corrections

Moose Lake Correctional Facility yard in Northern Minnesota.

As the spread of COVID-19 has permeated virtually every aspect of life, there is one place where it seems, without mitigation, the influx of the virus is inevitable: prisons. Housed in close quarters, and exposed to others, not only in cells, but also in showers and cafeterias, and through the use of shared phones and vending machines, prisons are the ideal incubator for the spread of a highly contagious virus, and where new hotspots of transmission will assuredly occur.
According to the Minnesota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, this is precisely what has happened at Moose Lake Correctional Facility in northern Minnesota. The ACLU-MN reports that within the 1,000 person facility, 12 inmates, and 11 staff personnel have tested positive for the virus, and 31 additional prisoners are presumed to have contracted it. In their lawsuit, Foster et al. v. Minnesota Department of Corrections et al, which was joined by the Minnesota Public Defender’s office in the Sixth Judicial District of Carlton County, the ACLU-MN claims that “the prison is failing to fulfill its constitutional duty to keep people safe.” According to the ACLU-MN, the facility has failed to manage the spread of the virus, housing eight people in one cell, and continuing the use of communal phones, vending machines, and showers, and only recently closing their cafeteria.
Junior Garrett Pauly expressed strong feelings about the importance of safety for prisoners in correctional facilities, like Moose Lake, saying, “I think when discussing the health and safety of inmates, regardless of COVID-19, we need to be clear about their punishments. Being exposed to COVID-19, or being at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, is not an appropriate punishment and is a denial of their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. When looking at the case of Moose Lake, and other prisons like it, the negligence on the part of the State Corrections Department and its leadership is astounding.” Pauly goes on to express that prisons must do everything in their power to control the spread of the disease and protect people in their custody. “Though I can understand that it may be difficult to maintain a fully socially distanced environment in their facility, any possible steps in that direction are paramount for the safety of their inmates,” Pauly said.
9th grader Hannah Brass also believes that prison facilities should take all measures possible to slow the spread of the virus in their spaces. “To keep their staff and the people in their custody safe, they should take the safety precautions that are common now: wearing masks, disinfecting/cleaning often, etc.” She also acknowledges that it’s not always an option to safely separate people, especially when space is limited. “For prisons and correctional facilities, the people in their custody should be put in separate cells if possible, although if they can’t do that because of the lack of space in some prisons and correctional facilities, it’s understandable,” Brass said.
The ACLU-MN also reports that because COVID-19 has now spread to every unit of the prison, staff are no longer testing inmates, which results in the reported cases being severely understated.
Brass thinks that since tests in Minnesota have become much more accessible over the last few weeks, testing should be a priority in spaces where effective social distancing is so difficult, like prisons. “Now that there are enough tests to test most people who want to be tested, each person in the facility should be tested,” Brass said.
Because social distancing and isolation practices are nearly impossible in traditional prison facilities, like those at Moose Lake, the ACLU-MN is calling for the release of a number of plaintiffs whom they represent, including Roger Foster, Kristopher Mehle, and Adam Dennis Sanborn, all individuals whose release dates are soon approaching, and are at severely high risk for contraction of the virus.
Brass believes that prisoners who pose a less severe threat to society, can be released, if precautions are taken. “The prisoners that are seen as more dangerous than others, such as murderers, should still be held in custody. If the prisoners were to be released within the next few years and are showing that they are ready to be released into society, then they should be released. Some of the prisoners could go home but be put under house arrest, which wouldn’t be much different from strict quarantine. They should evaluate the prisoners to see if they are ready to be released (if they feel bad about what they did) and how much time they have left,” Brass said.
Pauly agrees that action is necessary to combat the spread of this virus in prisons, saying “hopefully, the ACLU suit will force state prison administrators to take steps in the protection of their inmates and clear up their previous neglect.” He goes on to look to the future of the treatment of prisoners, saying “perhaps this epidemic will lead to the improvement of health and safety standards in prisons, maybe it won’t.”