Officials at the Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca are denying a lawsuit’s allegations that they didn’t prevent the spread of COVID-19 and provide adequate healthcare for inmates ill with the virus.
Prison staff “worked very hard” to address the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic and took implementing the COVID-19 action plan seriously, according to Assistant Warden Regina Kallis.
“I am aware that (the inmates) allege that FCI-Waseca did not sufficiently address their well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not the case,” Kallis wrote in a declaration filed in court Monday, Dec. 28.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court Dec. 9 on behalf of 14 inmates at FCI-Waseca. The lawsuit is filed against Michael Carvajal, director of the Bureau of Prisons, and FCI-Waseca Warden M. Starr.
Nearly 70% of the inmates had COVID-19 in an outbreak that began when inmates who had COVID-19 were transferred into the prison on Aug. 18, according to the ACLU’s lawsuit. However, Kallis wrote that federal law requires inmates to be assigned to a correctional facility.
“The facility cannot simply decline to transfer new inmates into the facility,” according to Kallis.
In total, 75% of the inmates and 20% of the staff at FCI-Waseca have had COVID-19, according to Tara Wieczorek, the health services administrator who oversees the health team at FCI-Waseca.
The COVID-19 cases this fall were “extremely difficult,” but the current number of COVID-19 cases “portray a more optimistic picture,” according to Kallis. As of Tuesday, 12 inmates and two staff at FCI-Waseca had COVID-19, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
The ACLU is alleging in its lawsuit that the prison violated the inmates’ 8th Amendment right to “humane conditions of confinement” and the Rehabilitation Act that prohibits discrimination against individuals with a disability in federal programs.
U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald, representing Carvajal and Starr, is requesting that the lawsuit be dismissed and the temporary restraining order be denied. MacDonald alleges that the ACLU won’t be successful in its lawsuit because the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Bureau of Prisons’ decisions regarding home confinement. In addition, the inmates have either recovered from COVID-19 or not contracted it, and FCI-Waseca is slated to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in January, according to MacDonald. Additionally, the inmates don’t meet the standard set by the 8th Amendment and aren’t likely to prevail on their Rehabilitation Act claim, according to MacDonald’s memo response to the restraining order request.
Prison officials filed declarations in court on Monday outlining their actions during the COVID-19 pandemic along with a couple dozen documents detailing the inmates’ medical care, although some of them are sealed or redacted. The publicly available exhibits also include correspondence regarding the inmates’ requests for compassionate release to home confinement.
The ACLU is seeking an emergency order requiring that the most medically vulnerable inmates be transferred to home confinement; the immediate implementation of social distancing and hygiene measures; and adequate medical care for inmates who have COVID-19. The ACLU is also requesting a temporary restraining order directing the prison to immediately implement and enforce social distancing, quarantine and hygiene measures and to appoint an independent monitor with medical expertise to ensure compliance.
A hearing on the restraining order request is scheduled for Jan. 6.
In addition to “significant changes to every aspect” of the prison’s operations to keep staff and inmates safe, 55 inmates were released from FCI-Waseca to home confinement, according to Kallis.
Wieczorek wrote that the Bureau of Prison’s COVID-19 Action Plan was implemented at FCI-Waseca in addition to a number of steps FCI-Waseca staff took specifically at the prison to prevent the introduction of the virus into the prison and in response to cases that occurred.
“The Bureau and FCI-Waseca staff have taken the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and have implemented numerous measures to proactively combat its spread to staff members and the inmate population,” Wieczorek wrote in her declaration.
According to Wieczorek’s declaration:
FCI-Waseca staff began revising the local pandemic plan on March 16 and began providing inmates with information about best practices, such as handwashing and social distancing, after receiving a memo from the Bureau of Prisons on April 8. The staff has also been provided with best practices information and gone through health screenings when entering the facility since March. Inmates were issued cloth face coverings on April 15.
Nurses screened inmates for COVID-19 symptoms daily from March through October by randomly selecting inmates to check their temperature and ask if they’re experiencing any symptoms. Inmates with symptoms were brought to Health Services and placed into medical isolation.
Inmates have been prohibited from co-mingling with inmates from outside their housing unit since March, but they can be around inmates in their building. Inmates also began working with only inmates from their housing unit in August.
The Bureau of Prisons began “enhanced screening procedures” for newly arriving inmates on July 1. At FCI-Waseca, a new inmate was asked if she was experiencing any symptoms and had her temperature checked. A COVID-19 test was also done and sent to the lab. Newly arriving inmates were then put into quarantine for 14 days. A staff member instructing an inmate to lie about her symptoms would be against policy and Wieczorek is unaware of any staff who did that at FCI-Waseca.
FCI-Waseca began to require newly arriving inmates to take a rapid COVID-19 test shortly after the inmates arrived on Aug. 18.
FCI-Waseca received 23 new inmates, 12 of which were from Grady County Jail in Oklahoma, on Aug. 18. They were given a COVID-19 test that was sent to a lab, had their temperature checked and were screened for symptoms before they were placed in quarantine in Unit A, but separate from FCI-Waseca inmates.
During the physicals required within 14 days of arriving, some of them began to complain of COVID-19 symptoms. Some of their tests came back positive within the first week of arriving and those inmates were placed in medical isolation. As more inmates tested positive, medical isolation was relocated to a wing of Unit A. Health Services began using rapid COVID-19 tests on all inmates in Unit A every three to five days, which yielded more cases. Testing began for inmates in other housing units and all but one unit had a confirmed case.
Prison staff continued mass testing until October. The current cases at the prison are all inmates who arrived at FCI-Waseca on Nov. 30, but no inmates who were already at the prison have tested positive.
Les Tlougan dedicated the last 12 years to the Waseca City Council, bringing knowledge, experience and passion to his position.
In 2008, Tlougan ran for the city council to address issues on his mind and those that he learned about through doorknocking around town. Although his time serving the community on the city council is coming to an end, he’ll continue to be present in the community through the library boards, the Marching Classic and being an election judge. People will still see him riding around town on his bicycle.
“I’ve never done stuff for personal glory,” Tlougan said. “I don’t care who takes responsibility, if we’ve gone from here to here and got something done, that’s all I care about.”
Once elected, he immediately wanted to improve the organization of council agendas and the long-term planning for the city.
“When I was elected, I had kind of determined that I wanted to be on for two terms, if I was re-elected, because you get pieces in place, but I knew in four years we would just be getting a good start and would really be rolling on it yet,” Tlougan said. “Then I wasn’t going to go a third term and I decided to do a third term, because there were some other things that I wanted... And we were getting to that point and I wanted to keep it moving.”
Once Tlougan took his seat on the council, he worked with the other council members to implement more organized council agendas, which meant adding an announcement and board of commissions section.
The other thing he worked on right away was implementing better long term planning for Waseca and what that would look like.
“Those two things alone were fixed within the first couple of years I was on council and it wasn’t just me, as a council we made that conscious decision that we needed to look down the road,” Tlougan said.
For Tlougan some of the long term planning meant adding bike paths, bike trails, bike lanes, sidewalks, parks, playgrounds and other amenities to the community. He said that he read about different towns and how they are attracting younger families and from this research it was determined that these amenities are a part of the draw to town.
Another long term planning item the council has been working on is the flooding issues in the city and how to address sanitary and sewer issues.
Since 2016, the city has put a emphasis on trying to find ways to mitigate the sewer problem and plans to work on that for the future time, according to Tlougan.
While on the council, he held spots on multiple boards: the Historical Preservation Commission, Library Board and the Planning Commission.
In 2001, Tlougan and a group of people started the organization of the HPC and brought the commission to the council to make it official. After numerous meetings and tweaks to the commission, the council accepted the HPC and it became an official entity in 2002. He has sat on that commission since the inception and was the council representative for all 12 years he was on the council.
“I have learned a lot from Les over the years,” said Joan Mooney, executive director of programs and research at the Waseca County Historical Society. “For instance: how to chair a meeting, how to listen and most importantly how important it is to be a city council representative. Les is invested in this community. His role on the HPC as well as city council kept the council and his constituents informed and up to date on the work the HPC was doing. We as a community have benefited from his years of service, and it shows. The ball is in motion and the direction has been set. We will move forward in his honor.”
Tlougan also served on the Planning Commission for several years as a council member.
When he first started on the city council, Tlougan was chosen to be the library board representative, which was fitting due to his background as a librarian/media specialist at the Waseca High School. The library board has since moved to a county commission and he is the county representative for another year. He also serves on the Traverse De Sioux Library Board and will for another year as well.
He continued to seek reelection to the council to keep improving the city and also because he enjoys working with the councilors and learning about how they tick when making decisions.
“I enjoy watching people, I like to see how people react, I like to see how people think, why they think that way, where’s it come from,” Tlougan said. “Once you have a feel for each of the people and where their world is, it’s much easier to figure out how to work to a solution that everybody can get to and feel comfortable with.”
With any organization, members have differing opinions on items that come across the agenda. Each person will view it in their own way and will prioritize things differently, which is part of why he likes to observe the group before responding. He said he will miss the council he is currently working with because they are able to share their differing opinions and walk away without being mad.
“We’ve had disagreements and we’ve had some disagreements that didn’t clean up real easy, but once we reached them and figured out how to get past them, I don’t remember a meeting where we walked away with anybody mad,” Tlougan said. “That’s a key piece to me. You don’t want people to walk away mad, because they’re not going to be helpful the next time and we’re not going to be able to find solutions if people are mad.”
Tlougan has worked with different councilors through his time on the city council, all of whom have different views and driving motives, but that has been part of the position that he enjoys. Along with different councilors, he has worked with three different city managers and other staff at City Hall and has been grateful for their guidance and help with agenda items.
“I’ll miss the staff and the council themselves, but people calling with problems wanting to know how do I do this or who do I contact, those are always the fun little things,” Tlougan said.
Since the election, he’s had a number of people reach out to him to thank him for his service on the council. This made him really reflect on his time and recognize that people notice the councilors’ work and dedication on issues in the city, he said, adding, “You don’t realize how you’ve impacted (residents).”
After 12 years on the council, he said he hopes the council will continue to make strides on improving the city with long-term planning and other projects coming up.
“The big pieces to me is that they continue to have good open discussion, without any of the overtones and stuff that was really causing problems for so many years and we haven’t had those for the last 12,” Tlougan said. “I will say that I was part of the solution for that and the other council members were right there, nobody wanted to see that continue, it was just a matter of the right people, right group at the right time and I think that group of seven was the right group.”
Going forward, Tlougan plans to attend a few council meetings, potentially the first meeting to see the new members sworn in, but he doesn’t plan to make a regular habit of it. He plans to work on projects around his house, continue serving on the two library boards, participate with the Waseca Marching Classic and be an election judge.
“I am reaching that time of my life where I have to start thinking about, ‘What other things should I be doing?’” Tlougan said.
The Waseca-Le Sueur Regional Library System will no longer charge fines or late fees on items.
Beginning in 2021, all fines and charges will be removed from patrons’ accounts and no new fines will be given.
The library is eliminating fees and fines to remove the financial barrier that keeps some community members from using the resources the libraries have to offer. By taking away the fines and fees, the libraries are open to more patrons to use.
“Staff are excited that the Library Board voted to eliminate late fines starting in 2021. This is a big step forward to opening up our libraries’ collections and services to more of our community members,” Library Director Stacy Lienemann said in a press release. “Over 2,000 of our patrons were blocked because of late fines over $20. Some of these late fines were accrued years ago, when the patron was a child. Now we welcome these patrons back to access all we offer, from books to hotspots and everything in between.”
Fines and fees are a thing of the past for the Waseca-Le Sueur Regional Library System, but if the library doesn’t receive its items back a bill will be sent to that patron. If the items are returned after the bill is sent out, the bill will be deleted off of the person’s account.
As a courtesy the library employees will send out a renewal or return reminder three days before the item is due back, then at 21 days an overdue notice will be sent out and at 35 days late, the person will be billed.
This is a way for the libraries to ensure that its items are returned.
According to the Waseca-Le Sueur Library System website, studies show that late fees don’t have a significant impact on getting people to abide by the return dates and that people stop using the libraries instead. Other libraries have reported an increase in return rates when fees are removed.
The library system will continue to monitor how the removal of fines is affecting the library overall.
Fees and fines bring minimal revenue to the library and, according to the library, will not affect the library system’s collections and services.
In 2019, the library system collected $2,600 in late fines.
The current budget ensures the library system can maintain its current support, collections and services and it is fiscally responsible to eliminate fines because of the electronic materials available that do not accrue late fines.
Libraries are a resource to help community members and not hinder them for being unaffordable due to fines and fees.
In 2020, over 2,000 Waseca-Le Sueur Regional Library System users were blocked from using the resources due to late fines over $20. These patrons were temporarily allowed access during COVID-19 and will continue to have access now due to the elimination of fines and fees.
Fines and fees restrict those who want and need access to library resources and the elimination of barriers will allow more people to access the library and what it has to offer.