DOC commissioner responds to family members’ concerns about COVID spread in prisons

As COVID-19 cases increase across Minnesota, the disease is also spreading within the Department of Corrections’ facilities. Inmates at nine of the state’s 11 prisons have now tested positive for the virus.

Most notably, two inmates died in June after contracting COVID-19 while in custody at the Faribault facility. A third inmate died Nov. 1 after contracting the disease at the Stillwater prison.

Eight people incarcerated at Minnesota Correctional Facilities have been hospitalized since the pandemic began.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS spoke to a Chaska woman who did not want to be identified. She told us her brother, who has underlying health issues, also tested positive at the end of October while serving at MCF-Stillwater.

“It’s pretty horrible,” she said. “It’s hard not to let your head just go to the very worst extreme that he’s going to die in prison. My brother is over 65, he has underlying health issues. We tried to get him conditional release to get him out of there, I just I can’t even hardly describe it to you what it’s like.”

His conditional release was denied.

Stillwater prison inmate dies less than 2 weeks after testing positive for COVID-19

In September, there were only a handful of positive tests at the Stillwater facility. The number quickly skyrocketed during October, surpassing 900. A total of 916 inmates have now tested positive there out of a total of 1,238.

There are 136 active cases there now, according to a DOC spokesperson.

On Oct. 30, the St. Cloud Correctional Facility also went on a modified lockdown. By mid-August, more than 160 inmates had tested positive there, which grew to 178 by mid-October.

By early November, the number skyrocketed to 504 cases among the 623 total inmates at the prison. There are still 335 active cases there right now.

“This isn’t even just the inmates,” the family member said. “Think about the correctional officers, the healthcare workers… that work there. Their lives are at stake, too. This is just a really bad situation that I don’t think had to happen.”

A total of 597 employees have tested positive since the pandemic began, with four requiring hospitalization. According to DOC’s website, 251 have returned to work.

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“When you have community spread to the extent that we’re seeing it in Minnesota, there is no way that is not going to influence congregate care settings,” DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said.

He told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that staff entering the facilities for work each day must fill out a questionnaire about their symptoms.

“When you have high levels of people that are asymptomatic, the reality is people could be positive and shedding the virus and the absolutely unaware of it and that’s the challenge,” Schnell said. “We had over 900 people positive at Stillwater, only a fraction of those people had any real symptoms. The majority of them were asymptomatic.”

He said that underscores the importance of testing.

“We’ve been doing sentinel testing at the facilities so we’re testing all staff, all incarcerated people in that facility so we get a better sense,” he said. “Right now the minute you get any levels of positivity, we’re testing at least weekly at most facilities because of what’s happening.”

He told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that once an inmate tests positive, however, they don’t receive another test for 90 days.

According to Schnell, inmates are isolated and tested if they exhibit symptoms. He said others who have been exposed to that inmate must quarantine and get tested.

“What happens when you have an outbreak that grows so exponentially like Stillwater, there is not a place for isolation or quarantine,” he said. “The entire facility is affected, and that’s when the lockdown happens.”

Minnesota Correctional Facility – St. Cloud on modified lockdown due to COVID-19 cases

In those cases, inmates are confined to their cells for all but an hour or two a day.

“Like shower, phone access, those sorts of things,” said Schnell. ”The reason you have to do that is in order to maintain social distancing.”

Testing hasn’t reduced the spread of the virus within the prison system. The commissioner pointed to the timing of results as another challenge they face.

“You tested somebody on Monday, the results come back on Thursday and you had somebody who worked or was moving about during that time, that can obviously have an impact,” he said. “We are concerned about that.”

Here is a breakdown of the currently active cases at Minnesota Correctional Facilities:

  • Faribault: 68
  • Lino Lakes: 158
  • Moose Lake: 24
  • Oak Park Heights: 2
  • Red Wing: 0
  • Rush City: 177
  • St. Cloud: 335
  • Shakopee: 8
  • Stillwater: 136
  • Togo: 0
  • Willow River: 3

Schnell told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS the DOC is still transferring inmates between prisons, despite the pandemic.

“We have to move some,” he said. “We intake all men at the St. Cloud facility and so because that’s the intake facility, eventually you get to a point where you’re full and you have to move them. Now, we quarantine when people come in, we quarantine people when we move them, but there is still always risk in those moves.”

It’s a practice that the family member we spoke to is condemning.

“This movement, especially when COVID is breaking out, is just a horrible thing and it puts everyone at risk,” she said. “I think it could’ve been handled much better.”

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked Schnell what he feels they could’ve done sooner to prevent the outbreaks at Minnesota prisons.

“We haven’t been perfect in what we’ve done, again because it’s a learning process… it’s easy to say, ‘We should’ve done this, we should do that,’ but the reality is we put in place the basic steps of protection,” he said. “We can have high levels of compliance, we may have people that are not compliant, we can have outbreaks, and it’s not different from what’s happening in the community.”

He told us all inmates have been provided four cloth masks and are required to wear them when they leave their cell. He said when there is an outbreak, higher grade masks are also used. Staff are required to use face coverings as well.

Since the death of the Stillwater inmate, Schnell said they have increased health screenings for incarcerated men and women to better manage and address symptoms. He said they’ve also stepped up mental health checks.

“At this point in time it’s about how do we reduce the risk of people dying and the pain that goes along with this for a lot of families,” Schnell said. “I worry every night. I don’t want to have any more conversations with family members, people who died while they’ve been in our custody, and I don’t want to have this conversation with family members of those who get really sick or die — thankfully we have not had this happen and I pray this doesn’t happen — of those who are serving in the DOC and contract this disease.

“We want to do everything we can to stop this, we’ll do our part and we need the communities part to go along with this because this is a systemic issue, it’s a societal issue and it’s something we all have to participate in.”