Containment efforts falling short
The number of positive COVID-19 cases being reported in Minnesota has been breaking records, with the Minnesota Department of Health reporting 8,689 new cases and 35 new deaths as of November 14. The state has a cumulative total of 220,960 positive confirmed cases and growing.
Minnesota prisons have been affected as well. The high number of COVID-19 cases recently found in Minnesota prisons has raised questions about whether enough is being done by Department of Corrections (DOC) officials to curb the spread of the disease in their facilities.
According to the Minnesota DOC, they have documented 2,424 positive COVID-19 cases among the state’s prisoners as of Nov. 13. Of that statistic, 894 (37%) of the inmates have not recovered and 1542 (63%) have recovered. There have been three COVID-19-related deaths; one victim is currently awaiting an autopsy evaluation.
“We have a human rights disaster going on, and we have a Department of Corrections that is putting their head in the sand and saying that what they’ve done is enough,” said David Boehnke, an organizer with Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).
IWOC has been working with the DOC since February advocating on behalf of the inmates. “We are trying to do the best we can,” claimed Paul Schnell, DOC commissioner. “There isn’t a single good answer.”
There are currently six state prisons in Minnesota with triple-digit COVID-19 cumulative numbers.
Rashad Ivy is one of the 37 inmates from Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility who contracted the novel coronavirus. “I was sick for four or five days before I realized I had COVID-19. I was having chills and cold sweats, my nostrils were burning,” Ivy explained.
“They gave me nothing. They didn’t even give me advice when I had COVID,” said Hannabal Shaddai, an inmate at Oak Park Heights. “One day, a guard and a nurse came by and told me I tested positive for COVID-19, put a sticker on my door and put me in a different group.”
The high number of COVID-19 cases in the prisons has resulted in extended lockdowns. Recent reports found that inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud have been placed on lockdown after over 50% of inmates at the prison tested positive for COVID-19.
“When things are as extensive as they are, it can be that [the inmates] are out every other day to shower, sync their tablets, and make a couple quick phone calls to people,” Schnell said.
“We stayed in the room for a couple of days, and then they let us out for an hour to shower and use the phone,” Ivy confirmed. “There were people in here with way worse symptoms than me and they just kept them in the room.”
The IWOC has been fighting against what they call “human rights violations” as a result of the lockdowns. “Locking people down creates all sorts of human rights violations,” Boehnke reiterated. “Being in extended lockdown, people aren’t getting showers, hot food, access to sanitary equipment, and people aren’t able to contact their families.”
Prison super spreaders
It’s not just the inmates that are seeing increases in COVID-19 numbers. Prison staff across Minnesota’s prisons are also seeing increasing positive cases.
Since the prisons have been on lockdown and in-person visits have been suspended, COVID-19 is entering Minnesota prisons with the people who are able to leave and return: correctional officers. “It is coming in with staff,” Schnell confessed. “If you look at our staff, the risk is higher [age wise], but they are at higher risk of being asymptomatic.”
With large numbers of people getting tested, labs in Minnesota are experiencing delays. “Let’s say we tested you on a Tuesday and we don’t get the results back until Friday. You’re going to show a level of positivity [in the prisons]… Who is exposed in the meantime becomes one of the big challenges,” Schnell explained.
Both Ivy and Shaddai have said that correctional officers have told them that the pandemic is a “hoax.”
“They don’t take it seriously. About 10 corrections officers have told me directly that COVID-19 was made to stop Donald Trump,” Ivy confirmed. “They don’t believe that it’s real, and when people think like that, when they leave [the prison] they aren’t social distancing or taking any form of precautions in the world because they don’t think it’s real.”
Apart from asymptomatic staff members bringing COVID-19 into prisons, Schnell predicted that two other factors are to blame for the spike in Minnesota’s prisons: the cold and the community. “I’m concerned that the airflow off the heating system is just blowing this particulate,” he said.
Minnesota experienced record-breaking snowfall near the end of October, which resulted in the heat within prisons being turned on early. “During the summer time the windows are open. Now all of a sudden the windows are closed, and we’re using a heating system that’s blowing air through these cells,” stated Schnell.
Inmates have noted the lack of air circulation within the prison during the pandemic. “They found it fair to let the sick people out and then let [people who weren’t sick] out after them knowing that COVID-19 lingers in a building with bad ventilation and no open windows,” Shaddai explained.
Inmates aren’t mandated to wear masks within their cells. As air is recycled and shared through the prison by the heating system, COVID-19 could be spreading through the cells.
“If someone in the cell next to me coughed, then it’s only a matter of time before I do, because we are all sharing the same air,” Ivy confirmed.
To combat the spread of the virus through the ventilation system, the DOC has increased the amount of fresh air filtered into the heating system from its normal 9% to about 20%, Schnell explained. “We’ve upgraded our filters to the fullest extent possible to still have heat.”
According to Schnell, differences in cell doors among facilities could also play a part in the spread of COVID-19. Some of the older prisons have bar-lined doors that can enable the spread of COVID-19 compared to newer facilities with solid steel doors that allow for more quarantining.
Early release a possible solution
Most recently, the IWOC hosted a “Honk-In to Declare a COVID-19 Emergency in MN’s Prisons” event to put pressure on the Department of Health, Ombudsman Office, Governor Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison to release inmates who have 18 months or less left on their sentences or are low risk and in medically fragile states.
“We want them to reduce their population enough so that they can social distance,” Boehnke said. “The DOC has the authority to release low risk and medically fragile prisoners…on a temporary basis until COVID-19 is over.”
Schnell claimed that if the legislature or the courts were willing to grant early release, he’d be willing to do it “all day long.”
Last month the Minnesota ACLU filed a class action lawsuit on the grounds that the DOC and Commissioner Schnell did not adequately protect incarcerated individuals from COVID-19 by failing to implement appropriate protocols to stop or slow virus transmission and denying medical release to high-risk individuals.
Nationally, several states have begun to reduce prison populations to limit the spread of COVID. New Jersey, for example, released 2,258 inmates earlier this month, the largest reduction of any state’s prison population.
Presently the DOC is working in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Health on plans to mitigate the increase in COVID-19 cases. “We still need to do work so that the problem doesn’t get worse and so that the next several months isn’t a complete disaster in our prisons,” said Boehnke.
Amudalat Ajasa is a Twin Cities Black Journalists and MN Spokesman-Recorder intern and a student at Hofstra University.
She can be reached at email@example.com.