The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a petition against the state Department of Corrections Wednesday to keep prisoners and staff at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Moose Lake (MCF-Moose Lake) safe from the rapidly spreading COVID-19.
The ACLU-MN filed Foster et al. v. Minnesota Department of Corrections et al., along with the Minnesota Public Defender’s office, in the Sixth Judicial District in Carlton County.
Twelve people incarcerated at MCF-Moose Lake already have tested positive for the virus, and 31 more are presumed to have it. At least 11 correctional staff also are reported to have COVID-19, allowing the virus to spread back into the community.
The prison is failing to fulfill its constitutional duty to keep people safe. The prison is still holding as many as eight men in a single cell, and permitting unrestricted access to showers, communal phones, vending machines and other facilities. The prison only recently shut down its cafeteria.
COVID-19 is reported to be in every unit of the prison, and because of this, the prison is now reportedly refusing to test inmates, allowing the virus to spread nearly unchecked, the petition says. There is no way for people to social distance.
“The ACLU of Minnesota is suing because the prison and DOC have failed to perform their legal and moral duty to keep the people in their custody safe,” said ACLU-MN staff attorney Dan Shulman. “Prisoners tell us that people are jammed into cells with others who have symptoms of COVID-19, and the prison refuses to perform adequate testing. The prison and DOC have failed to take even rudimentary measures to prevent and stop the spread of COVID-19 at Moose Lake, endangering inmates, staff and the surrounding communities. Detention should not mean a death sentence.”
The ACLU-MN represents plaintiffs Roger Foster, Kristopher Mehle, Adam Dennis Sanborn and others like them who are near the end of their sentences or are at high risk of COVID-19. Foster and Mehle have release dates within 180 days or less, and potential employment awaiting them; Foster has been showing COVID-19 symptoms since early April, but the prison refuses to test him. Sanborn is a smoker with asthma, yet he’s being held with people who have COVID-19 symptoms. All three have safe places to go after they’re released.
The petition for writs of habeas corpus and mandamus charges that the prison is violating Minnesota Constitutional rights to security and protection, freedom from cruel or unusual punishment, and due process. DOC and the prison also are violating state laws that seek to assure minimum standards for inmate security, safety and health, including removing people from facilities infected with health or life-threatening contagious diseases.
The ACLU-MN is asking the court to order the immediate release of these plaintiffs and those with similar situations to safe locations where they can socially isolate and get medical treatment if needed; to require DOC and the prison to perform their legal duty to keep all incarcerated individuals safe; and to appoint a special master to oversee the process.
Conditions at MCF-Moose Lake as detailed in the ACLU-MN's Petition:
- Moose Lake did not even start the minimal social distancing measures now in place until March 26.
- On about April 10, the prison shifted the responsibility of social distancing to inmates by instructing inmates to “police themselves” and opening certain areas of the prison to all inmates.
- MCF-Moose Lake is either unable or unwilling to test prisoners for COVID-19 unless they have a very high fever or other life-threatening symptoms, such as the inability to breathe. Because at least one person has now tested positive for COVID-19 in each unit, Moose Lake reportedly has discontinued all testing.
- People with COVID-19 are being housed in segregation, causing extreme hardship. The fear of being sent to segregation has made inmates reluctant to seek testing, which endangers them and everyone around them.
- At least 11 correctional officers reportedly have COVID-19, and many continue to come to work over the objection of nurses at Moose Lake. Although the guards have masks, only about half actually use them. The use of masks is not required.
- A number of inmates work on the cleaning detail. None are provided with protective gear and clothing.
- Cleaning supplies, including soap and disinfectant, are in short supply. Correctional officers reportedly have instructed inmates to use less because supplies won’t be replenished.
- MCF Unit 8 houses about 120 inmates. An inmate who tested positive was medically isolated, but his three cell mates have been left in the unit, where they use the same phones, common areas, vending machines, bathrooms and showers as everyone else.
- People are being moved out of the segregation area in Unit 4 because it’s overflowing with sick people. They’re instead housed in a building which lacks showers, so they have to shower in a unit where there was a confirmed COVID-19 case.
- New prisoners are not being properly isolated to make sure they don’t have the virus. They’re also showering in Unit 8, where there was a confirmed case.
- The gym is now used as additional space for those with COVID-19 or its symptoms.
- An outbreak will likely overwhelm the rural health care system. The hospitals in Moose Lake and Cloquet have a total of 102 beds, six of them ICU, according to the hospitals’ self-reported numbers.