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KARE 11 Investigates: COVID outbreaks in state prisons among worst in the nation

As the Department of Corrections searches for solutions, the virus is sickening inmates and guards alike, making families fear for their loved ones.

STILLWATER, Minn — Minnesota’s prison system is facing one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation following a massive spike in infections over the last few weeks, new data shows.

After a relatively quiet stretch of several months, the state now has the 6th highest infection rate among prison inmates in the country and the 3rd highest among corrections staff.

It’s a trend that’s only getting worse, according to an analysis provided by the The Marshall Project, a nonprofit investigative newsroom dedicated to the U.S. criminal justice system, and The Associated Press, which KARE 11 has partnered with.

Last week, Minnesota had the highest rate of new inmate cases in the nation, the data show.

So far, eight inmates have been hospitalized due to COVID and three have died. Of the 561 corrections staff who have tested positive, eight have been hospitalized and none have died.

Still, the rapid rise has inmates and staff alike worried about their safety.

Credit: KARE 11 - Sarah Bishop
Sarah Bishop worries about her husband, now an inmate at Moose Lake.

Sarah Bishop, whose husband is at the Moose Lake Prison, said she and other friends who have loved ones on the inside feel they are not getting adequate information about what’s being done to stop the spread in the facilities.

 “You automatically go to the fear, go to am I going to get the call that my loved one is no longer here,” Bishop said.

Credit: KARE 11

Reasons for the spread

The outbreaks have the Department of Corrections scrambling to find solutions to slow the spread, from increased social distancing to bringing in environmental experts and upgrading filtration systems, said Commissioner Paul Schnell.

He blamed the outbreaks largely on community transmission and asymptomatic corrections staff working in the prisons.

But even the snow storm last October could have contributed to the rapid spread, Schnell said. Stillwater prison has seen by far the worst outbreak, going from a handful of cases at the end of September to a surge over the last four weeks that has now infected three out of every four inmates.

Credit: KARE 11
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell says officials are trying to combat the virus.

When the snow hit during the middle of last month, the heat was turned on at the prison and the windows closed, Schnell said.

“Did our activation of the heating system result in increasing viral load because there was not as much airflow?” Schnell said.

The ACLU of Minnesota does not buy explanations such as those. The non-profit filed a lawsuit last month saying that included 18 statements from inmates across the state who detailed a lack of social distancing, sanitization, mask wearing and testing.

Credit: KARE 11
ACLU attorney Dan Shulman says Minnesota hasn't done enough to protect inmates.

The ACLU’s lead attorney on the case, Dan Shulman, said the outbreaks were foreseeable and preventable.

“Now they’re just chasing it. They’re not preventing it,” he said.

Other states in the upper Midwest are also seeing a severe spike in COVID cases. The two Dakotas, Wisconsin and Mississippi round out the top five in corrections staff infection rate. Wisconsin and South Dakota are also in the top ten among infection rates for inmates.

Credit: KARE 11

No more early releases

Shulman and other advocates say they want the DOC to continue to release prisoners with underlying medical conditions and do not pose a threat to the community.

That program, begun at the start of the pandemic, has seen nearly 340 prisoners released early. But those releases have come to a grinding halt, and the DOC says there are no plans to ramp the program back up again.

“We’ve exercised the discretion we believe is appropriate,” Schnell said.