Lawsuit filed by ACLU-MN to protect people in Minnesota prisons from COVID-19

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU-MN) has filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday to force the Minnesota Department of Corrections to protect people in its custody from COVID-19.

The claim was filed in Ramsey County District Court against the DOC and Commissioner Paul Schnell.

The lawsuit Arnold Baker et al v. Minnesota Department of Corrections alleges that the DOC has failed to put in measures to stop or even slow the transmission of coronavirus, and has violated its legal obligation to protect the people in its custody from the virus, including denying medical release to people with conditions that put them at grave risk.

The allegations of mishandling the crisis also include the following:

  • An almost complete absence of social distancing throughout the prison system.
  • Staff not wearing masks and mocking those who did.
  • Staff denying testing to someone with Lyme disease who had a 103.7 fever and other symptoms.
  • Confining people who aren’t sick with those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or show symptoms.
  • People being denied COVID-testing, or access to a doctor while showing symptoms.
  • Ventilation being connected room to room, recirculating air.
  • Hand sanitation stations being located outside of people’s reach and frequently empty of sanitizer, and communal showers lacking cleaning supplies.

"The cell [I was confined to] had feces on the floor and had obviously not been disinfected," plaintiff Charles Jackson told the ACLU-MN. "This made me extremely nervous that I could easily get the virus. I tried to clean the entire cell with towels the DOC provided me to shower with. I was not allowed to have cleaning supplies."

An earlier lawsuit filed by the ACLU-MN showed the DOC argues that it was taking all possible measures to slow the spread of the virus. However, publicly reported data on the transmission rate calls DOC’s reassurances into question, the ACLU-MN states. Across all DOC facilities, 205 confirmed cases have been found and two deaths have were reported in relation to the virus at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault alone.

"There has been a significant blind spot in Minnesota’s leadership on the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is its handling of the pandemic in prisons," said ACLU-MN staff attorney Dan Shulman. "Not only does DOC’s failed track record further endanger Minnesotans, their families, and their communities, it also flies in the face of state law requiring the government to exercise reasonable care to safeguard people in its custody, and it violates the Minnesota Constitution by inflicting cruel or unusual punishment and denying due process before potentially depriving people of their lives."

The DOC issued a statement Thursday evening.

"We acknowledge the health risks presented by COVID-19, and we take seriously our responsibility to provide individuals sentenced to prison an environment that is as safe as reasonably possible under these difficult circumstances," DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said.

More from KSTP:

Judge: Allegations say DOC hasn’t met duty to keep prisoners safe

ACLU-MN sues to release Moose Lake inmates due to COVID-19 dangers