Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell says he is not downplaying the COVID-19 risks for inmates and staff, and is looking for ways to create safer spaces.
“It’s sort of like a dry dock cruise,” Schnell told MPR News host Tom Crann on All Things Considered on Thursday.
Schnell said in some ways, prison mirrors every other congregate or contained living setting. He expects they will confirm more COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks. He is considering the release of some prisoners up to six months early to allow more space between inmates.
As of Thursday, nine inmates at the Moose Lake prison were confirmed positive through testing, with an additional 23 inmates presumed positive. The Corrections Department reports 13 staff members self-reported as testing positive for COVID-19 from the Moose Lake prison and the Red Wing juvenile correctional facility.
The Corrections Department doesn’t test everyone, but Schnell said the positive and presumed cases are limited to Moose Lake and Red Wing facilities and he hopes to keep it that way. He said no one in the corrections system has been hospitalized for COVID-19.
“We have attempted as much as possible to do social distancing,” Schnell said.
The commissioner said staff has been preparing for the pandemic for weeks by setting up additional hand-washing and hand-sanitizing stations throughout the system and conducting educational programming around the coronavirus.
Schnell said some releases could happen as early as next week.
Civil rights advocates have called on lawmakers to release some medically at-risk and nonviolent inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic to help limit the spread and save lives.
Schnell said releasing some prisoners early is likely the best way to create more space, but that the safety of the public will be the biggest factor in deciding to release inmates early.
“So that we don’t have massive spread and so that we don’t ultimately have to bring people out of the prisons into the community health system that itself may become overburdened as this goes forward,” he said.
The Department of Corrections says it could release anyone who has served more than 50 percent of their sentence, but there are certain disqualifying factors under state law. Those include court ordered in-custody treatment, out-of-state warrants, and sex offender programming. Moose Lake houses the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.
The Corrections Department says the framework Schnell is considering includes a number of factors like nonviolent offenses, low risk to public safety, and being within 90 days of regularly scheduled release.
Under this framework, there could be about 50 people released per month. State lawmakers could vote to extend the time frame to six months.
Schnell points out that while new inmates will still enter the system, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the court process, reducing the number of people entering Minnesota’s prisons.
Schnell said early releases could also help correctional facilities avoid using lockdowns and other segregated housing models to distance inmates that are often associated with punishment.
“We do not want this to be disciplinary,” he said.