COVID-19 cases surge in Minnesota prisons, outbreak among worst in U.S.

Reported COVID-19 cases per 10,000 prisoners. (Source: The Marshall Project)


Prisons have become a hotbed for COVID-19 as infection rates surge both state and nationwide. Minnesota's correctional facilities are facing one of the worst outbreaks in the country, recent data shows. 

Throughout the U.S., Minnesota's prison system has the sixth-highest COVID-19 infection rate, with 4,051 known cases per 10,000 people—a rate that is 609% higher than Minnesota overall, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Among prison staff, the rate is 4,107 per 10,000, which is 619% higher than that of the state overall.

As of Dec. 4, the Department of Corrections (DOC) had reported 12 COVID-19 hospitalizations and five deaths among inmates, most recently, a man in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) in Moose Lake. The man's identity has not yet been released, but a news release from the Department of Human Service (DHS) said his family has been notified. 

“Losing a loved one is always difficult, but it's especially painful under these circumstances, when the pandemic is claiming so many lives,” said DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead. “Our hearts go out to his family, friends and all who will miss him.” 

Approximately 740 civilly committed clients receive treatment at Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. There are 18 active cases of COVID-19 in MSOP facilities currently, according to DHS.

Throughout Minnesota's correctional facilities, eight hospitalizations due to COVID-19 complications have been reported amongst staff. None have died of the virus, as of Dec. 4. 

DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said that his department is working hard to contain the spread of the COVID-19 within among incarcerated individuals and staff. 

“Since the beginning of this pandemic, we've worked to take all reasonable steps to minimize the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in the state's correctional facilities for the well-being of those we serve and our staff,” he said in a statement. 

Schnell also said that the DOC has conducted “comprehensive testing of all incarcerated people and staff” in Minnesota's 11 correctional facilities as well as measures to manage the risk of the virus, such as implementing “Stay in Unit” plans, enacting mandatory mask policies and installing handwashing facilities in each location.

Not everyone finds such measures sufficient, however. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota has filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Corrections over accusations that the department has failed to stop or slow transmissions of COVID-19. The lawsuit, Arnold Baker et al v. Minnesota Department of Corrections, alleges, among other things, a complete lack of social distancing, staff not wearing masks, unsanitary conditions and prisoners being denied access to testing and medical care.

“The cell (I was confined to) had feces on the floor and had obviously not been disinfected,” Plantiff Charles Jackson, who is incarcerated at the Faribault facility, said in a statement. “This made me extremely nervous that I could easily get the virus. I tried to clean the cell with the towels DOC provided me to shower with. I was not allowed to have cleaning supplies.”

The case is currently pending in court.

According to data from the DOC, there were 13 current positive COVID-19 cases at the Lino Lakes correctional facility, 36 at Stillwater and 12 at Oak Park Heights. The Stillwater prison has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates—as of Dec. 4, at least 972 inmates had been infected with the virus, which is 77 percent of its total population.


Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) as a correctional facility under the purview of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. MSOP is a secure treatment facility operated by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. 


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