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

Judge: Allegations say DOC hasn't met duty to keep prisoners safe Photo: KSTP/Jay Kolls.

Tommy Wiita
Updated: April 30, 2020 06:25 PM
Created: April 30, 2020 12:27 PM

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Minnesota says a judge is ordering the state Department of Corrections and Moose Lake prison to respond to allegations that they can't keep people in prison safe from COVID-19.

The ACLU of Minnesota, along with the Minnesota Public Defender's office, asked the court on April 15 to protect prisoners from rapidly spreading COVID-19. The petition asks the court to release people at high risk of getting COVID-19 and those whose sentences are nearly over to safe locations where they can socially isolate.

The ACLU-MN has asked the court to appoint a special master to make sure DOC performs its legal duty to keep all people in prison safe, according to a news release.

“That the government is obliged to provide medical care for those who are incarcerated is elementary,” Sixth District Judge Leslie Beiers wrote in a ruling released late Wednesday afternoon, adding that the state has a constitutional duty to assume some responsibility for the safety and well-being of those in its custody.

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

“Certainly, the challenges posed by the contagion are substantially beyond MNDOC’s experience,” Beiers wrote. “Nonetheless, its duty to do so is clear. The allegations in the Petition, supported by sworn affidavits and declarations, demonstrate that thus far, MNDOC has not met its duty.”

The judge quoted statistics that show how quickly COVID-19 is spreading. In just the past two weeks since the ACLU-MN filed the petition, the number of cases worldwide and in the United States has jumped about 50%, while the national COVID-19 death rate has more than doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Minnesota's known cases rose from 1,809 to 5,136 as of Thursday, while Moose Lake prison's went up 517%, according to ACLU-MN.

The judge ordered DOC and the Moose Lake prison to respond to the allegation that they are not meeting their constitutional duty. That would include providing for appropriate testing, social distancing and medical treatment.

“We are gratified by the Court’s order and hopeful that the Department of Corrections can perform its legal duty to keep prisoners at Moose Lake and Willow River safe from COVID-19,” said ACLU-MN Staff Attorney Dan Shulman. “We commend and have advocated for the system-wide measures the Department is taking, but these changes are not coming fast enough. We feel it is imperative to direct full attention to where so many confirmed cases actually are. While we are hopeful this case will set a precedent for the entire system, you can’t improve the neighborhood when a house is on fire.”

The state has until May 11 to file a written response.

To see the full filing, click here.

Nicholas Kimball, communications director for DOC, issued the following statement to KSTP:

"We received the order to show cause issued by Carlton County District Court Judge Leslie Beiers.  The Department of Corrections has taken reasonable and necessary steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within the state's correctional facilities.  Yesterday, Judge Beiers filed a what is essentially a scheduling order to set a date for the agency to respond to the allegations in the ACLU's petition.   We look forward to providing an accounting of the DOC's COVID-19 mitigation efforts at the Moose Lake facility and across the system.    The order makes no conclusions about the case, but simply acknowledges that the petition made sufficient allegations that, if true and if no other evidence is presented, could result in a finding adverse to the Department of Corrections.  The case now moves to the next stage, which includes submission of the DOC's written responses to the allegations.  Detailed information about the agency's response to and management of COVID-19 can be found on the agency's website."

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