To prevent spread of COVID-19, prisons consider release program for nonviolent sentences within 90 days of release

Congregate living a concern to health officials; prisons building capacity to isolate

Sloane Martin
April 03, 2020 - 5:52 pm
Sign at Stillwater state prison


Minnesota health officials are focusing on congregate care facilities like skilled nursing and assisted living; the populations combined with the close settings make them vulnerable to coronavirus spread.

Another type of congregate living facility is jails and prisons which face similar challenges.

Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell says they've instituted their own version of the Stay at Home Order called Stay With Unit.

Facilities started early screening staff, setting up hand-washing stations, distributing masks and providing educational outreach. They also staggered meal times and modified programming to allow for as much social distancing as possible to minimize the potential for spread. 

Most facilities allow the populations from different living units to intermingle like in the dining hall or for educational programming. Those close quarters are too high a risk now.

“The purpose of doing this is really trying to get capacity within the facilities should we have a large-scale outbreak,” Schnell said. “I think we have to. When we look at our population, recognize -- as I said earlier, oftentimes they’re younger on the whole. We also have people who have really profound and serious medical conditions. We need to be able to have the flexibility and space to move people around for quarantine and containment.”

Two correctional facilities have reported lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19. 7 inmates and a staff member tested positive at Moose Lake. Two staff members at Red Wing are also confirmed positives. Tests are pending at Stillwater and Lino Lakes. 

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To help build the capacity, Schnell says the agency is also reviewing candidates who are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes and within 90 days of their release as part of the work, education and training release program. The goal of that decades-old program is to allow for transition time for job searching, treatment programs and reengaging with family.

“There are some who may say we should just lock them in a cell and feed them sandwiches and hope for the best, but the U.S. Constitution, Minnesota law, human rights standards and the teachings of most organized religions call for humane treatment of those in our prisons,” Schnell said. “We must recognize the reality that 95 percent of people currently living in our prisons will one day return to communities across our state. 

“Men and women serving these sentences in our prisons have people on the outside who love them and care about them. And we know that those incarcerated also worry about their own family members in light of COVID-19.

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