The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a class action lawsuit Thursday to force the Minnesota Department of Corrections to protect people in its custody from COVID-19. The lawsuit was filed in Ramsey County District Court against the DOC and its Commissioner Paul Schnell.
The lawsuit Arnold Baker et al. v. Minnesota Department of Corrections alleges that the Minnesota Department of Corrections has failed to put in place measures to stop or even slow the transmission of coronavirus, and has violated its legal obligation to protect the people in its custody from COVID-19, including denying medical release to people with conditions that put them at grave risk. The allegations of mishandling the crisis include:
- 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 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.”
In an earlier lawsuit filed by the ACLU-MN over conditions at Moose Lake prison, DOC argued that it was taking all possible measures to slow the spread of the virus. But publicly reported data on the transmission rate calls DOC’s reassurances into question. The virus has since spread like wildfire across all DOC facilities, skyrocketing to 205 confirmed cases and causing 2 deaths this summer at 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.”
Numerous medical and public health officials say prisons need to follow the same commonsense rules as everywhere else to keep people safe: social distancing, widespread and regular testing, strictly enforced mask-wearing, disinfection of surfaces and common areas, and safe and non-punitive quarantine for people infected or exposed. But these measures require extreme diligence in prisons, where people are often crowded together in unsanitary spaces – and DOC has demonstrated that they are unable or unwilling to practice the degree of diligence necessary, the ACLU-MN lawsuit alleges
The ACLU-MN is asking the court to force DOC to do its job and protect the people in its care and custody from COVID-19.