Minn. House members question DOC Commissioner about response to COVID in prisons

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More than 3,800 inmates in Minnesota prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Eleven inmates have died from the disease.

As recently as December, there were increases in cases at Oak Park Heights, Faribault, St. Cloud and Togo prisons. MCF-Togo saw its first cases last month.

“The bottom line is in a static environment where people don’t move, or you don’t have to move people in and out, it would be very simple to manage your population,” said Commissioner Paul Schnell. “We have to move our people through the system.”

The Department of Corrections Commissioner spoke to Minnesota House lawmakers on Tuesday. He explained intake for men happens at St. Cloud and when the facility fills up, they have to move inmates to other locations.

“It does become challenging when you’re in these pandemic environments,” he said.

Members of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy committee listened to a presentation from Commissioner Schnell and asked him questions over the course of about an hour.

“It looked like at the beginning you weren’t doing enough to try to relieve issues,” said Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge).

While Rep. Johnson credited the DOC for improvements it’s made, he criticized the movement of inmates and the way meals were handled early on in the pandemic.

“I know talking to my counterparts in the Senate they were getting very frustrated with things going on,” said Johnson. “It was just rough on the corrections officers, rough on their families, some of the things going on.”

Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL- Edina) called for vaccinations within the facilities.

“Prisons are congregate care settings so, in terms of getting vaccines, I think that’s really important,” she said.

Commissioner Schnell explained vaccines are being distributed in state prisons right now.

“We are following the community standard, I think this is really important,” he said.

According to the DOC, they’ve started with Oak Park Heights, Faribault and Shakopee.

Oak Park Heights, a facility for men, has a transitional care unit for those with acute medical conditions like cancer. The Faribault prison has a geriatric unit for men. The women’s facility at Shakopee cares for both older inmates and those with medical conditions, according to DOC.

Healthcare staff in those prisons, who qualify under Phase 1A, are getting vaccinated along with the respective prison populations.

“These are people that would’ve been in long term care or nursing home level care across the DOC and that is, again, in accordance with community standard,” said Schnell. “Some would say, look these are prisoners, these are people who have done wrong. We view this not as a corrections or criminal justice issue but a public health issue.”

State officials told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that a little more than 400 inmates and staff have now been vaccinated in DOC skilled nursing facilities.

“We do believe there is some benefit to doing some of our staff and our population at the same time because they are in a sympathetic environment,” said Schnell.

He told lawmakers they’re working with the Department of Health to determine timing for administering the vaccine system-wide.

“Really, we’re hoping to see changes in supply chain which ultimately would answer some of those questions as soon as possible,” said Schnell.

In the meantime, the DOC is doing internal marketing campaigns to educate both inmates and staff about the importance of vaccines.

Rep. Heather Edelson also asked how the DOC is handling staff shortages, reported last year.

“We saw throughout the pandemic because of the job market, […] we saw a dramatic increase in the number of people applying to work in the DOC,” said Schnell. “Bringing them on through the course of this, and that process, was challenging.”

Commissioner Schnell was also questioned about the DOC’s strategy to reduce the prison population. Since the pandemic began, 181 inmates have been granted work release. Another 154 inmates have received conditional medical release, according to the DOC dashboard.

“It’s most typically used in end of life situations where people who are nearing end of life, their condition is grave, that they can be released into the community,” explained Schnell. “Some of these people will ultimately, depending on vaccination and where our state sits, they could be required to come back to DOC custody because of the conditional nature of that release.”

When asked by Committee Vice Chair Rep. Cedrick Frazier (DFL-New Hope) whether there had been any violations of the terms of the release among those who received it, Commissioner Schnell replied, “that number has been miniscule.”

Committee Chair Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) said he hopes to continue talking about how they can further support DOC during the new session.

“I do want to acknowledge the incredible stress and high expectations the pandemic has posed for your staff,” said Rep. Mariani. “We have a duty under our state laws as well as morally to look out for [inmates’] health and care precisely because they are in our custody.”