Judge temporarily stops DOC from reincarcerating inmates given conditional release due to COVID

A Ramsey County judge has stopped the Minnesota Department of Corrections from reincarcerating inmates who were granted conditional medical releases due to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least for now.

Thursday, District Court Judge Mark Ireland granted a temporary restraining order against DOC after a couple of inmates filed a lawsuit against the department.

During the pandemic, DOC created a COVID-19 protocol for its conditional medical release program that allowed inmates deemed to be at a “higher risk of grave harm from COVID-19” to receive early supervised release.

Then, in May of last year, the department issued a memo saying it would no longer accept or grant applications for COVID conditional releases due to the availability of vaccines. This January, DOC opted to stop using conditional medical release as a way to manage COVID risk for pregnant inmates.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU,) nearly 2,300 inmates applied for conditional medical release during the pandemic and just 158 were granted release.

The inmates’ lawsuit says DOC told them the last week of July that they and all others who were released under the COVID protocol but aren’t yet eligible for standard supervised release must surrender themselves to the department no later than Aug. 15 to serve the rest of their sentences.

Their lawsuit argues that, although state statutes allow for a conditional medical release to be rescinded without a hearing if an inmate’s condition improves and the release presents a more serious risk to the public, DOC didn’t consider individual circumstances in its decision to rescind releases due to COVID.

In his order, the judge noted that public safety was already considered when the conditional release was granted.

DOC will now get to respond on Aug. 15 and the inmates again on Aug. 17 before the next hearing on Aug. 18.

The DOC issued the following response:

“We respect the court’s order and will follow it as we prepare for the court to determine the ultimate path forward next week. COVID-19 Conditional Medical Release was a temporary strategy to provide added protection for those at greatest risk of severe COVID-19 consequences when there was no vaccine or treatment available. That has changed. Given the availability of effective vaccines and therapeutic medications today, we do not believe the commissioner can justify continued release any longer.”