Families of Faribault inmates concerned about conditions as DOC announces 2 more COVID-related deaths

Eight inmates have died at correctional facilities in Minnesota since the pandemic began. Two of those deaths happened on Dec. 10, including one at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Faribault and another at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Moose Lake.

MCF-Faribault has been hit especially hard, accounting for half of the COVID-related inmate deaths. More than 40% of the inmates have contracted COVID during the pandemic.

There are 393 inmates who are currently COVID positive while another 432 have recovered. The prison’s population is 1,781. In addition, 119 staff members have tested positive with another two employees presumed positive. Sixty-two of those staff members have returned to work.

Danielle Pickett told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that her fiancé tested positive for COVID after feeling symptoms about a month ago. He’s incarcerated at MCF-Faribault.

“You could hear the wheezing significantly thorough the phone,” she said. “It’s really upsetting to hear, once they do call, everything that’s happening in there and how terrified they are. You feel like such a helpless human being.”

The number of cases at Faribault soared in November. During the week of Oct. 28, 208 inmates had tested positive or were presumed positive, with most having recovered. By Nov. 25, a total of 829 inmates had tested positive for COVID.

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According to Pickett, her fiancé was eventually tested with the rest of the prison but she said he didn’t get his results.

“They came back a few days later and decided to give just him a second test,” she said. “The second test was positive after he had already been placed in a cell with a positive COVID inmate. That was kind of the tipping point for me.”

She questioned why DOC didn’t keep him in his original cell, isolating with his cellmate, until his test results came back.

“The prison decided to place him in a quarantine unit without knowing his results,” said Pickett. “You never actually would know whether or not you have COVID just off of the symptoms.”

Pickett said that about three weeks after testing positive, her fiancé is still in the quarantine unit.

“That’s the other part that’s a little concerning,” she said.

According to Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, it’s their policy to move those who test positive, or have symptoms, to isolation. Close contacts are also quarantined.

He said someone might not move back to their original unit after completing a 14-day quarantine and presumed negative.

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“People say ‘I want to go back to general population, back to my area,’ which we all understand but the problem is what’s the level of positivity at that unit?” Schnell said. “If we have high numbers of positives in that unit the last thing we want to do is move someone who is negative back in there.”

To help contain the spread, MCF-Faribault is currently under modified lockdown. Commissioner Schnell said they have a quarantine unit but due to the sheer number of cases there, COVID-positive or exposed inmates are also isolating or quarantining in their cells.

“When you have a peak of 800 positives in your population and your population is 1,600, 50% of your population is now positive. There is no isolation,” Schnell said. “To separate this big of a number in the housing units, the only way we can do that is by managing through quarantine or isolating through lockdown.”

During a Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing press conference with reporters this week, DeAnn Motley shared concerns about the quarantining practices at Faribault.

“I have a son at Faribault who is diabetic and asthmatic,” she said. “I’m pleading with Department of Corrections to please, if you can, take the ones that are positive and separate them.”

Motley said her son tested positive for COVID.

“They waited over five days before they removed [my son’s] cellmate and now his cellmate is positive,” she said. “And then placed another inmate with him, transported from St. Cloud, who was positive.”

COVID-positive inmate at Faribault prison dies

According to Motley, her son had already quarantined for 10 days when the new cellmate was placed with him.

“What is the purpose?” she said. “You keep putting other people in his cell where he’s not going to be able to recover.”

Commissioner Schnell said that two COVID-positive inmates may be placed together.

“That could very likely happen that you’re going see people being isolated together,” Schnell said.

He said, however, once an inmate is beyond the 14-day quarantine period, they try to avoid placing someone who is positive with them.

“I can’t say we’ve never done that because it’s really going to depend on how much positivity there is, what our ability to move people to other units is, what the status of other units is,” Schnell said. “We don’t want to bring someone who had close contact into another unit.”

Schnell added that it’s challenging to keep track of who is positive, negative and who has recovered.

“It’s not simple, it’s not easy,” Schnell said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of trying to do that. Has it been perfect? I’m sure it has not but I know we really have been taken seriously the guidelines and the directives we’ve been provided the Health Department.”

Once an inmate tests positive, they don’t receive another test for 90 days. According to the DOC, they try to test negative inmates weekly.

“They swab themselves and nobody really explains to them what to do,” Salome Nerayo, whose brother is an inmate at Faribault, said. “I question how accurate those tests are.”

Pickett said her fiance is also skeptical.

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“He told me that they would be in the cell that they are in, and they have a little hatch door on the cell door, the correctional officers will come through and they will hand the test swab over to them through the hatch in the door,” said Pickett. “They will watch as the inmate then swabs themselves.”

Commissioner Schnell confirmed to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that is the protocol.

“In most instances,” he said. “This is not an uncommon practice if you talk to DOCs around […] We want to make it efficient and frankly most of the people in our population, they want to know.”

He said the testing team is trained and provides instructions to inmates. According to Schnell, they watch the inmates to make sure they’re doing it correctly. The labs also notify DOC if a bad sample was taken and that inmate is swabbed again.

“It’s maybe one in every 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 tests that we get invalid samples so it really isn’t a huge concern for us,” he said. “What’s happening today in the facilities is the community standard. Is there the potential that there could be false positives? False negatives? Absolutely. There are in the community as well.”

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked Schnell if the department considered having health care professionals administer the tests.

“We’ve talked about this and frankly we want the health care people focusing on health care needs of people,” he said. “To pull nurses from nursing cares to people in our population, to me doesn’t make a lot of sense when we can use people who are trained adequate.”

Pickett said she understands there may not be enough medical staff to administer the tests but feels changes are needed.

“At least have the correctional officers do it,” she said. “That way they know it’s at least being done right and all of the tests are coming back accurate whether that’s negative or positive.”

With hundreds of inmates at Faribault still COVID-positive, Nerayo is worried about the toll it’s having on her brother’s and other inmates’ mental health.

“He worries that they’re just going to put them on lockdown indefinitely, he won’t be able to talk to me or his kids,” she said.

In-person religious services are not currently allowed, while outdoor time and access to facilities like libraries are restricted.

“I’m sure that would take a toll on anyone’s mental health,” Nerayo said. ”The inmates are getting more and more, not necessarily upset, but worried. My brother, he feels that something needs to be done, they need help.”

Both Pickett and Nerayo told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that their loved ones have voiced concerns about not having enough masks or cleaning supplies as well.

“It’s like their lives are being pushed to the side like they don’t matter,” Nerayo said. “Yes, they’re inmates. Yes they are more than likely in prison for choices they make but they’re still people, they deserve to have the minimum amount of care.”

The DOC provides inmates with four cloth masks and surgical masks during an outbreak, according to Schnell. He said the expectation is that everyone is wearing a mask when they are outside of their cell.

Schnell said they want to get a vaccine rolled out as soon as possible.

“Given the risk associated with being in a congregate care setting, we do think it’s important,” he said. “The risk of contracting COVID of our staff and the people who reside there is about two and a half times greater than it is for people in the population.”

He said at least seven of the inmates who died of COVID-19 had underlying health conditions.

“We have already begun the process of identifying the people who are highest risk and establishing risk levels,” Schnell said. “We we want to make sure the people that have the highest risk are the first to receive the vaccine.”

Last month, the American Medical Association gave its support for prioritizing correctional workers, incarcerated people and detained immigrants when vaccine distribution begins, given their high risk for contracting the disease.