ACLU lawsuit challenges DOC’s safety precautions
Federal and state prisons in Minnesota have faced scrutiny for months over their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) last year alleging that it failed to protect incarcerated people from the virus.
Prisons are notoriously dangerous places during a viral outbreak, and incarcerated people have been left at the mercy of those at the helm of correctional facilities across the country. The COVID-19 death rate in prisons has been three times higher than among the general U.S. population, even when adjusted for age and sex, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
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When Ramsey County District Judge Sara Grewing ruled on March 31 that the ACLU lawsuit could proceed and inmates could sue the State over the handling of the pandemic as a part of a class-action suit, Minnesota DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell pledged that all inmates would be vaccinated by April 9.
“At this point in the fight against COVID-19, it is universally accepted that people working and living together are at exponentially heightened risk for contracting COVID-19,” Grewing said when the decision was made.
Grewing also ruled that Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm could be added as defendants in a class-action lawsuit, and said the DOC must produce information verifying the claim that all inmates would be vaccinated by April 9. At the time, just one-fifth of inmates in the DOC system had been fully vaccinated, the ACLU suit alleged.
But Schnell told MSR that all inmates in the DOC system who want the vaccine have received it: “Everybody who wants to, has had it,” he said. “Not only did we offer it, but we also really urged people to participate in vaccination.”
Schnell added that the pledge to have all inmates vaccinated by the specified date only applied to inmates that wanted the shot. “We have no ability to force anybody.” Schnell noted that the vaccination rate at some facilities stands at close to 80%, which is higher than many surrounding communities in the state, and that inmates have been more likely to get the shot than prison staff.
Minnesota ACLU staff attorney Clare Diegel told the MSR that a decision regarding the suit is expected soon. “We have been concerned that their vaccination program is not properly educating incarcerated people about the benefits of the vaccine and that they were not distributing it as quickly as they should have,” she said.
According to the most recent data from the Minnesota DOC, more than 1,000 inmates remain unvaccinated as the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 accelerates to a weekly average of over 1,000 cases. By August 11, more than 4,000 inmates had come down with the virus and 12 had died.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the real-time vaccination rate in state prisons due to turnover, data on the DOC website provides insight about the vaccine-rollout program in state facilities. At the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Faribault, the largest facility in the DOC system, 327 inmates have yet to receive a single dose of the vaccine. About 64% of the 2,000 inmates housed there are fully vaccinated, via either two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer shot, or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
At the Lino Lakes Correctional facility, which houses 1,300 incarcerated people, 396 inmates haven’t received an initial dose of the vaccine. At Rush City, 191 inmates out of the 863 housed there also haven’t received a shot.
However, Schnell noted that there’s a lag between the numbers online and the real number of inmates who have been vaccinated, as that figure continues to grow. About 200 additional inmates were vaccinated just last week, Schnell said, although those numbers aren’t reflected in the data.
But the ACLU’s legal challenge of the handling of the pandemic in correctional facilities in Minnesota extends beyond the state prison system.
Federal Women’s prison sued
The Minnesota ACLU filed a lawsuit against the low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca in December of 2020 alleging prison staffers failed to release medically vulnerable people with conditions including autoimmune diseases, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and obesity to ensure their safety from COVID-19 and allow for proper social distancing. While the more than 400 inmates who caught the virus at the prison lived through the ordeal, the suffering can’t be measured by a body count.
The ACLU reported in December that inmate Aaryana Malcolm became so sick at the Waseca federal women’s prison last year that other inmates had to help her eat and shower. Prison staff ignored Malcolm’s requests for medical attention although she was vomiting and coughing up blood.
When she was finally transferred to a hospital, Malcolm was told she needed to be placed on a ventilator and spent 10 days under doctors’ care. Months after her hospital stay, the lingering effects of long-haul COVID continued to plague her.
More than 70% of the Waseca population caught COVID in a three-month period last year, according to a lawsuit.
“Refusing to release medically vulnerable people who are at the most risk from COVID-19, and instead packing them into bunks just a few feet apart, is no way to handle a highly infectious and deadly virus,” Diegel said at the time. “The Bureau of Prisons is failing to act with either common sense or humanity.”
Diegel noted the prisons’ reluctance to change their policies and practices to stem the spread of the virus during the outbreak last year. “They weren’t open to adjusting their practices when we were criticizing them when there was a big outbreak,” she told the MSR. “It does seem like they are releasing people under the CARES Act at a higher rate now than they were before.”
Diegel also said that a client, whose identity she did not share, stated that incarcerated people at Waseca are no longer being tested for COVID. “If someone is complaining of having a symptom of COVID, they just put them in quarantine for 14 days. They don’t actually test them,” she said.
The ACLU lawsuit filed against the feds was thrown out in March by U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis on procedural grounds, although the judge did not address the claims of alleged mistreatment. But Davis left the door open for the ACLU to re-file the claim.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment as providing the basis for prisons to provide inmates with medical care. It has clarified that officials may be held liable for failing to provide adequate health care if they are aware of, yet disregard, a “substantial risk of serious harm…by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it.”
Niara Savage is a contributor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.