A judge is ordering the state Department of Corrections and Moose Lake prison to show cause for why 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 April 15 in Foster et al. v. Minnesota Department of Corrections et al. to protect prisoners from rapidly spreading COVID-19. The petition asks the court to release people at high risk from COVID-19 and those whose sentences are nearly over to safe locations where they can socially isolate. We also asked the court to appoint a special master to make sure DOC performs its legal duty to keep all people in prison safe.
“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.
“Certainly, the challenges posed by the contagion are substantially beyond MNDOC’s experience,” Judge 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 is spreading. In just the past two weeks since the ACLU-MN filed the petition, the number of cases worldwide and in the U.S. has jumped about 50%, while the national COVID death rate has more than doubled. Minnesota's known cases rose from 1,809 to 4,181, while Moose Lake prison’s went up 517%.
“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 judge ordered DOC and the Moose Lake prison to show why they should not be ordered to perform their legal duty and keep the petitioners reasonably safe from COVID-19. That would include providing for appropriate testing, social distancing, and medical treatment. The state must file a written response by May 11.