As COVID-19 spreads in Minn. prisons, loved ones worry

A corrections officer enters a building inside of Stillwater prison.
A corrections officer enters a building inside of the Stillwater Correctional Facility in Bayport, Minn., in January 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, Russell Swanson reported to a federal prison camp in Duluth to begin serving a 10-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.

Swanson is only 37 years old, but he has chronic kidney disease and high blood pressure, and is a former pack-a-day smoker — all risk factors for the coronavirus. 

His wife, Amy Wagner, requested that he be released on house arrest. She was optimistic about Swanson’s chances to be approved for the federal Bureau of Prisons compassionate release program. He's a nonviolent offender who completed drug treatment and has a stable home and family support.

But on Nov. 23, a federal judge denied Swanson’s request, due to the seriousness of his crime and because he’d served less than 10 percent of his sentence.

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It was tough news for Wagner, who worries that, for her husband, contracting COVID-19 in prison could be a death sentence. 

Currently, 41 inmates and three staff at the Duluth federal prison camp have confirmed active cases of the virus.

"Since he's been in there, he's done all the right things,” she said. “I was really, really hoping that this would keep my husband safe. And to get that news was heartbreaking."

people stand in a line holding signs
The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee holds a protest outside the Minnesota Department of Health Nov. 6, asking MDH to declare a COVID-19 emergency in Minnesota prisons. The group has worked to highlight conditions in prisons they say could lead to uncontrolled spread of the virus in prison communities.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News file

Early in the pandemic, corrections and public health experts agreed that the best way to reduce the chances of outbreaks in prisons and jails was to reduce their populations.

Federal and state governments moved to expand programs that allowed inmates who have underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk of getting sick from COVID-19 to request an early release or placement in home confinement. A fraction of those requests were approved, but most — like Swanson’s — have been denied.

Prisons have lowered their numbers and taken other measures to stem the virus’ spread. But that hasn’t been enough to stop deadly outbreaks in Minnesota and across the United States.

"It hasn't been enough to be effective,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a national research organization that examines how mass incarceration affects society at large. “What they probably needed to do is drop their populations by 30, 40, 50 percent. And what we've seen is that prisons and jails have done much less.”

The federal Bureau of Prisons reports that about 5,000 federal inmates and 1,500 staff have confirmed positive test results for COVID-19 nationwide, while about 22,000 inmates and 2,000 staff have recovered.

In Minnesota, more than 3,000 people incarcerated in state correctional facilities and more than 800 staff — plus more in county jails — have tested positive for the coronavirus. 

COVID-19 is now present in nearly every Minnesota prison. Some, including Stillwater, Faribault and St. Cloud, have seen large outbreaks.

Last week, a 64-year-old man who was incarcerated at the state’s Faribault prison became the sixth person incarcerated in a state correctional facility to die from COVID-19.

Minnesota's state prison population is down about 17 percent from before the pandemic, from about 8,800 in early March to about 7,300 people now. That’s due in part to efforts like an expanded work release program and fewer offenders being returned to prison for violating parole, both efforts the Department of Corrections put in place to tamp down the pandemic’s spread.

The state also expanded its conditional medical release program, which sometimes allows an inmate who's seriously ill or near the end of life to be released early, to people especially at risk for COVID-19. More than 2,300 people in state prisons applied for a conditional medical release under the expansion.

But the Minnesota Department of Corrections granted just over 150 of those requests and isn't accepting more, despite the coronavirus spike inside prisons.

Stone sign outside Stillwater prison.
Guard towers and fencing surround the Stillwater state prison in October 2019.
John Minchillo | AP 2019

When deciding whether to approve a conditional medical release, the department considers whether there’s a public safety risk, whether the person will have safe housing and medical care once they're out, and whether a victim will be impacted, said Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.

"It's weighing all of those factors that really becomes the challenge,” he said. “It's certainly not something I would wish upon anybody to have to make these decisions. Because every day I worry about someone else not making it through COVID — whether it's a person who works for us or a person who's in our care, custody and control.”

Uphill battle

Controlling a highly contagious disease inside a prison is a monumental task. Prisons are crowded places, with lots of people sharing cells or dorms, bathrooms, recreation areas and dining halls. 

“The real problem here is that we have people in prison during a pandemic,” said Mark Haase, ombudsman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. “They're in a confined space indoors. There's only so much that can be done as far as moving people around and isolating people when they are positive.”

Inmates who test positive are sometimes sent to isolate in segregation, so they may be hesitant to admit when they're sick, said Jon Geffen, director of the Reentry Clinic at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.

"You have people that can't socially distance, that can't really control their environment,” Geffen said. “And you have other people from the community who work there."

There are structural challenges, too: Prisons often have old ventilation systems that recirculate the same air. In Minnesota's oldest prisons — in St. Cloud and Stillwater — the cells have open-front doors with bars that make it difficult to stop transmission of airborne particles.

people hold signs above their heads
The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee holds a protest outside the Minnesota Department of Health on Nov. 6.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News file

To make matters worse, people in prison are statistically less healthy than people in the general population. They're more likely to have medical conditions, such as hypertension and asthma, that put them at higher risk for getting seriously ill from the coronavirus.

Schnell said state prisons have taken numerous steps to combat the virus. That includes requiring both staff and inmates to wear masks, restricting inmates’ movement to prevent the virus' spread, widespread testing and isolating those who are sick.

But in prisons such as Faribault and Stillwater, where the positivity rate is so high, there’s just not enough space to isolate everyone who’s positive, Schnell said. 

“When once you get to a certain level, you just simply cannot do anything but try and minimize the spread by keeping people in their housing units or cell,” he said.

The federal Bureau of Prisons, which operates prisons in Duluth, Waseca, Rochester and Sandstone, declined an interview request. In a statement, a public affairs officer listed the bureau’s efforts to control the coronavirus, including screening staff and inmates, limiting movement and increasing sanitation.

As of this week, 151 federal inmates and two Bureau of Prisons staff members have died after testing positive for COVID-19.

Some of Minnesota’s county jails have been more successful in reducing their populations than their state and federal counterparts. Some decided not to jail people arrested for minor offenses or not to accept as many inmates transferred from other counties or states as they would before the pandemic.

Hennepin County, for example, has reduced its jail numbers from an average of about 800 before the pandemic began to around 550 now.

Sherburne County cut in half the number of inmates and detainees it houses through contracts with the U.S. Marshal Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow single bunking in nearly every cell, Sheriff Joel Brott said. 

Eight inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Sherburne jail since August, but the jail doesn’t have any active cases now, Brott said. He attributes that to a combination of luck and preventive measures jail officials took early in the pandemic to prevent an outbreak, including screening staff and inmates for temperature and symptoms every day, and having a rapid COVID-19 testing machine on site. 

They also adjusted the jail’s ventilation system to increase the flow of fresh outside air, added air purifying technology called bipolar ionization and tripled the number of medical isolation cells with negative pressure to prevent particles from escaping.

“I think we've learned a lot,” he said. “Post-pandemic, I think that there's still going to be some things that we’ll do differently, for sure.”

Families wait, worry

The rising number of COVID-19 cases is worrisome to the families of people incarcerated around the state, who don't think prisons are doing enough to prevent the virus' spread.

They've heard from their loved ones that corrections officers and inmates don't always wear masks. They’ve heard that, though inmates are tested frequently for COVID-19, they are sometimes left unsupervised to administer their own test. 

A woman named Lyndsey, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she’s worried that speaking out about her family’s experience could put them at risk, has a 35-year-old loved one who's almost completed his 10-year sentence. It’s a dorm-like setting in a minimum-security building at the Stillwater prison, with about 60 men. 

"They share everything,” Lyndsey said. “So that's been the problem with social distancing — there's none there."

Lyndsey said her loved one has high blood pressure and lung issues, but was denied twice for early release. Now, he has COVID-19.

As of last week, there were 31 current positive cases among people incarcerated in the minimum security unit. Lyndsey said she believes corrections officers likely brought in the virus. 

"If they would have actually taken this seriously and came with masks on, were washing their hands, staying away from inmates and just being more aware of what they were doing, this wouldn't have happened I don't think, especially at this level,” she said.

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota sued the Minnesota Department of Corrections on behalf of inmates at the state’s Moose Lake prison. Staff attorney Dan Shulman said at that time, Moose Lake was the only state prison with positive cases of COVID-19.

"Since that time, COVID has come back in Moose Lake, and it also absolutely ravaged many other of the prisons that the Department of Corrections operates,” Shulman said.

The ACLU lost that first case, and is appealing. In October, it filed another lawsuit on behalf of people in state prisons, and is seeking class-action status.

The lawsuit alleges that the state Department of Corrections failed to protect inmates by not enforcing mask use or social distancing, not adequately testing inmates or cleaning facilities, and not releasing people with medical conditions.

Even though people are in prison because they committed a crime, the state is still responsible for their safety, Shulman said.

"Their punishment does not include being subjected to a lethal disease,” he said.

The pandemic restrictions have also raised concerns about effects on the mental health of people in prison.

In some prisons, people are confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day. Recreation, educational classes and jobs are curtailed and in-person visitors aren't allowed.

“Incarceration is incredibly stressful,” Prison Policy Initiative’s Peter Wagner said. “And incarceration during a pandemic — where you can't when we have less contact with your family, you don't have jobs and other things inside — I would be definitely worried about people's mental health and the harm that this is doing.”

Eliana Davis of Madelia, Minn., helped start a Facebook group for loved ones of people who are incarcerated in Minnesota prisons. Davis’ significant other is in Kandiyohi County jail awaiting sentencing, and she also has a friend serving a life sentence in the Rush City prison.

"You're sitting there, and you're constantly racking your brain, and you’re with your own thoughts,” she said. “Your own brain can be a dangerous, dangerous place. … What kind of normal human being would want to be locked in a cell, just with their own thoughts, nothing else to do?”

Gateway to reform?

For years, advocates for prison reform have been talking about ways to reduce mass incarceration, including ending lengthy mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes. Some hope that the pandemic could be a paradigm shift needed to spark change.

JaneAnne Murray, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, directs the Clemency Project, which has sought compassionate release for people in federal prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said federal judges who decide whether to grant the requests have had to reexamine the sentences they issued decades ago with a new perspective. 

They’re looking at “what that person has achieved in prison, what kind of person they have become, how they've changed and matured and learned to give back, even within a prison environment,” Murray said.

“I hope that it's causing those judges to rethink some of the very long sentences that they impose going forward,” she said.

Ideally, Minnesota’s public policy would focus on minimizing the number of people in prison to only those who are most likely to affect public safety, Schnell said.

“If we really as a state and as a nation focused on really, the people that are in prison are the people who really fundamentally need to be there in order to protect us from imminent danger, that's something very different than what our public policy has often been,” he said. 

Instead, the focus has been putting people in prison even when there may be community-based options to hold them accountable, address their needs and help them reintegrate into society, Schnell said.

As approval for a COVID-19 vaccine nears, there’s also expected to be debate in upcoming weeks about whether people who live or work in prisons and jails should be among the first to receive it.

In the meantime, Russell Swanson sent a letter to the judge who denied his compassionate release petition, asking him to reconsider. 

His wife said she’ll keep fighting and plans to appeal.

“It’s super stressful and frustrating and disheartening,” she said. “I know that these men have committed crimes. … But they’re still humans, and they still have families and wives and children, and they’re somebody’s son.”

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.