As the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen, public health officials are raising particular concern about the virus’s potential to spread in correctional facilities.
Already, thousands of prison and jail inmates across the country have tested positive for the virus. A report released last month by the American Civil Liberties Union found that if significant steps are not taken to reduce the virus’s spread in prisons, an additional 100,000 Americans could die.
In Minnesota, two state correctional facilities have seen major outbreaks of the virus. As of Thursday, 36 staff and 35 inmates had tested positive for the virus at MCF-Moose Lake, while 55 inmates and four staff tested positive at MCF-Willow River. In all, 455 inmates in Minnesota’s prisons have been tested as of Thursday, 92 were positive, 38 were presumed positive. Sixteen are pending results.
At MCF-Faribault, the largest of 11 state-run correctional facilities throughout Minnesota, no cases have been reported. Fourteen inmates have been tested, with 13 of those confirmed negative and one still awaiting results. That doesn’t mean the facility is sitting on its laurels. Nicholas Kimball, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said that officials from MCF-Faribault are in daily and sometimes hourly contact with the state and other facilities.
Working with Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell and other top officials from the state DOC, as well as local health officials, each facility has come up with its own set of guidelines to limit spread of the virus.
Kimball said that the process has proven quite complex and challenging for the Department of Corrections, because each facility varies greatly. Some of the state’s correctional facilities are 100 years old, while others were construction a couple of decades ago.
“It’s challenging, because these facilities weren’t built with pandemic management in mind,” Kimball said. “We’ve had to change procedures and schedules to reduce the opportunities for the virus to spread.”
Within MCF-Faribault and other facilities throughout the state, a “Stay in Unit” plan has been implemented. Like Gov. Tim Walz’s order, the “Stay in Unit” plan is designed to limit the spread of the virus should an inmate contract it, giving authorities time to respond.
Schnell has pushed hard for additional recreational and educational opportunities for prisoners. Among the state’s correctional facilities, Faribault has traditionally led the way, but that push has been deeply affected by the pandemic. Inmates have continued to work in essential occupations such as food service, laundry and cleaning, though they’ve been asked to adhere to strict social distancing policies. Classes have also continued, but only after the development of distance learning plans.
Inmates are still allowed to meet with their tutors individually or in small groups, so long as social distancing protocol is followed. Treatment groups are continuing similarly, with large groups eschewed in favor of small groups or electronic communication.
To help inmates cope with stress, outdoor recreational activities have actually increased. Inmates are expected to follow strict distancing procedures while outdoors, and each unit is kept separate in accordance with the Stay in Unit policy.
Recently, staff and inmates alike have begun wearing cloth masks, per the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staff have their temperature taken every day before entering the facility, to limit the risk of spreading the disease.
Additional hand washing stations have been installed to encourage proper sanitation, and like staff at health care facilities, correctional facility staff are encouraged to take precautions at home to limit the risk of spreading the virus to their families.
However, access to N95 masks, which provide the strongest and most reliable protection from the virus, is limited to use by medical staff or corrections officers interacting with a known symptomatic patient.
Kimball said that initially, amid a shortage of testing, the state limited tests to prisoners who had symptoms unique to COVID, rather than the flu or other viruses. Now, testing has expanded to cover even asymptomatic people.
As the state continues to expand its testing capacity and more timely tests are developed, Kimball said that it’s possible that facilities like MCF-Faribault could adjust their policies. He said the DOC is paying close attention to the guidance of local and state health authorities to determine whether changes are needed.