Like many of the country’s prisons, Minnesota’s are full. As of July 2019, more than seven in every ten of the state’s prisoners had at least one roommate, often in cells so small that the American Correctional Association has said they do not meet national standards. That crowding is especially problematic as medical experts say social distancing is needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
As of Monday, state corrections officials say that nine prisoners and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Moose Lake prison. Twenty-one other prisoners are presumed to be infected based on symptoms. Two staff members at the Red Wing juvenile corrections facility have also tested positive for the virus.
Moose Lake has about 1,000 prisoners. On Monday, March 30 when the first person there tested positive for COVID-19, prisoner Jordan Blevins said everyone was still eating together in the cafeteria. "You guys got us going to chow, packing us into this chow hall, elbow-to-elbow because that’s the way it’s set up,” he said. “Guys have an issue with that."
Blevins is in his late 30s. He’s expected to get out of prison in August of next year. He said the mood changed as the positive virus test sank in. "Everybody was just in panic mode, basically. Everybody had a million questions that weren’t able to be answered."
By lunchtime, staff were bringing food to people’s cells. Blevins has been working on the cleaning crew, called swampers. He makes 25 cents per hour for his work.
The crew cleans periodically. But Blevins and Jon Manypenny, another prisoner, say there are no wipes or hand sanitizer by the phones and kiosks that everyone shares to talk with their families. So it’s tough to clean them between uses.
The hand sanitizer that is available at sanitizing stations doesn’t have alcohol in it, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that it be at least 60 percent ethanol or 70 percent isopropanol. A corrections spokesperson confirmed that alcohol-based sanitizer is banned, saying they do not want people to try to separate and drink it.
"The guards got clorox wipes, they got everything, but we don’t," Manypenny said. "In my eyes, it’s kind of like, they don’t care whether we get sick or not."
Manypenny is the pipe carrier for native ceremonies at Moose Lake. He’s in his late 30s and has 14 months left inside. He says Moose Lake got cloth masks two days after the first positive virus test. They’re now on partial lockdown, so they’re not crowding into the dining hall like they were a week ago.
Still, an air of fear still hangs over the prison. People with symptoms are being taken to segregation, otherwise known as solitary confinement.
“There's a lot of guys walking around here looking like they’re not healthy,” Blevins said. “They’re just not saying it. Because they don’t want to go to seg. And I don’t blame them.”
Being in segregation usually means very limited — if any — access to phone calls, emails, television, and fresh air. Segregation due to COVID-19 is not being treated as punishment, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections. But Blevins said there’s a memo on the wall that doesn’t reassure.
He told MPR News the memo said, “Offenders can bring their JPay player with them when going to isolation” but doesn’t mention phone calls or emails.
“So they’re letting them have their music,” he said. “But it doesn’t sound like they’re letting them have their people.”
Manypenny also said he understood why prisoners might not want to report symptoms and go to segregation.
“You’re stuck in a room. On top of not having communication with the outside world, you’re stuck there by yourself, thinking, ‘I got this virus, I could die from it.’”
So far, Moose Lake is the only facility where prisoners have tested positive. But staff could potentially introduce the virus each time they show up for work. They are screened with four questions about travel and symptoms. They received masks late last week, but wearing them is optional.
Last week, the corrections ombudsman called on the state legislature or Governor Tim Walz to give more power to the Department of Corrections to release people from prison early. Governor Walz said last week that he would consider an executive order if the legislature does not act, but he did not give a time frame.
Commissioner of Corrections Paul Schnell said all prison wardens will implement a plan this week to limit prisoners’ movement within state facilities without locking them down completely.
On Sunday morning, a 48-year-old prisoner collapsed and died in the shower. The Department of Corrections issued a statement saying the prisoner hadn’t reported COVID-19 symptoms. They say an investigation is underway.
Manypenny said he's worried.
"Looking out in the free world, they ain’t got enough ventilators for people. It’s just kind of scary, because if it came down to it, I don’t think they’re going to waste ventilators or do anything for us because we’re offenders, you know?” he said. “I’ve got a year left. But it feels like with this stuff they’re giving me a death sentence.”