Judge orders Corrections Department to respond to Moose Lake allegations

Minnesota Correctional Facility - Moose Lake
Minnesota Correctional Facility - Moose Lake. As of Wednesday, 33 inmates at Moose Lake had tested positive for COVID-19; another 31 were presumed to have it; and 29 staff members have also tested positive.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Corrections

A judge has ordered the Minnesota Department of Corrections to demonstrate that it has sufficiently protected inmates at the Moose Lake prison from COVID-19.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a lawsuit in mid-April alleging that the Corrections Department and the Moose Lake prison have failed to implement sufficient measures to slow or stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, arguing the prison is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to keep people in custody safe.

"The current concerns that we're hearing are that there is no social distancing that is meaningful, that testing is insufficient and is being denied, that prisoners and staff have not been provided with sufficient protective clothing and equipment like masks,” said ACLU attorney Dan Shulman.

Carlton County District Court Judge Leslie Beiers ordered the state department to file a written response to the allegations by May 11.

“Certainly, the challenges posed by the contagion are substantially beyond [Minnesota Department of Corrections’] experience,” Beiers wrote in the order issued Wednesday. “Nonetheless, its duty to do so is clear. The allegations in the petition, supported by sworn affidavits and declarations, demonstrate that thus far, [the department] has not met its duty.”

In a statement, the Department of Corrections said it looked forward to the opportunity to provide “an accounting of the DOC’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts at the Moose Lake facility and across the system.” The department insisted it “has taken reasonable and necessary steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within the state’s correctional facilities.”

As of Wednesday, 33 inmates at Moose Lake had tested positive for COVID-19; another 31 were presumed to have it; and 29 staff members have also tested positive.

Meanwhile, 45 participants in the Willow River boot camp, located 8 miles from the Moose Lake prison, have also now tested positive — roughly a third of the facility’s population.

Family members of residents of the Willow River program have complained to the Corrections Department about conditions inside the facility, where they say the military-style living in extremely close quarters made social distancing impossible.

After the state submits its brief, the ACLU of Minnesota has until May 15 to respond. A hearing has been scheduled for May 19.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.