A judge has tossed a lawsuit that claimed the Minnesota Department of Corrections has failed to take adequate steps to protect inmates from the spread of COVID-19 at the state prison in Moose Lake.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Leslie Beiers on Monday dismissed the action, which was filed in April by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and the state public defender's office.
Attorneys for the inmates alleged the agency was lax in its enforcement of social distancing and mask-wearing requirements and conducted limited testing that likely did not capture the full scale of the spread of the virus among inmates. They sought an order requiring prison officials to enforce safety precautions, also requesting early release for inmates meeting certain criteria.
But DOC officials maintained they had undertaken "exhaustive efforts" to protect inmates and staff in recent months, succeeding in stopping the spread of the virus within prison walls. About 80 inmates altogether were confirmed or suspected to have contracted the virus, according to DOC records, but numbers have remained stagnant in recent months.
“The record shows that (DOC officials) have taken the threat seriously and responded with reasonable and appropriate steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to identify, isolate and treat those who have contracted the disease," Beiers wrote in the 37-page order.
In dismissing the claims, the judge denied the inmates' request for an evidentiary hearing to present testimony on the effectiveness of the agency's response. She found that further proceedings were not necessary because "the record does not show by allegations or evidence that (DOC officials) knew of any potential lapses in enforcement and deliberately ignored them."
"This court cannot focus on isolated failures or impossibilities but must view respondents’ entire response to this devastating and ever-changing virus," Beiers said. "When viewing their entire response, it is clear that (the inmates) have not demonstrated respondents’ conduct evinces deliberate indifference. To the contrary, respondents have taken the threat seriously and taken reasonable and appropriate steps to protect and mitigate the risk to petitioners, other inmates and the staff."
Dan Shulman, an ACLU attorney, acknowledged at a hearing last month that the DOC has implemented many well-intentioned policies aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, but questioned how effectively those measures were being implemented.
In addition to alleged deficiencies in enforcement, he criticized the agency for being too slow to implement widespread testing, suggesting the virus may have "run its course" through the facility, infecting hundreds more inmates than officially reported.
Shulman did not immediately return a call from the News Tribune seeking comment on the judge's ruling.
DOC officials welcomed the dismissal of the lawsuit, which a state attorney previously decried as "Monday morning quarterbacking amid the most difficult pandemic of our lifetime."
The agency said its response has been "constantly evolving" since March, with new precautions ranging from the addition of hand-washing stations to the distribution of masks to the creation of dedicated isolation areas for inmates who are symptomatic, as well as those transferring in or out of the prison.
“Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Minnesota, the Department of Corrections has taken a serious, adaptive and coordinated approach to combating COVID-19 across the state’s prison system," DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said in a statement Monday. "We welcome the court’s recognition of the reasonableness of our actions to date, but we do not minimize the serious risk that COVID-19 represents for those incarcerated and our staff.
"We will continue to coordinate with health experts on a multifaceted approach that minimizes the risk of mass infection through effective prevention and spread management strategies. We remain fully aware of our constitutional obligation to provide humane care for those who are in our custody.”
As of Monday, there were 916 inmates on-site at the medium-security prison, which houses adult men. That's down from approximately 1,050 when the first COVID-19 case was reported in late March. Statewide, officials said Minnesota's prison population is at its lowest point in at least 15 years.
In Moose Lake, more than 1,350 COVID-19 tests have now been conducted on inmates at the facility, according to DOC statistics, with no new cases reported in several weeks.
Six of the state's 12 prisons, including the boot camp program in Willow River, have reported at least one case among inmates since late March, when Moose Lake was the first to record a positive test. Statewide, there have been 351 positive tests among inmates, with another 38 presumed cases. Among staff, there have been 71 confirmed or suspected cases.
In her order, Beiers noted that prisons are not immune from the dangers posed by the novel virus. But she said there was no evidence that the DOC has failed to meet its statutory duty to keep inmates safe.
"There is no doubt that COVID-19 poses risk of harm to all Americans, including those in the MCF-ML and DOC facilities systemwide," Beiers wrote. "The record developed in this case demonstrates (DOC officials) recognize their duty to inmates and take seriously the threat of COVID-19, as reflected by their extensive measures to combat the virus."
This story was updated at 4:47 p.m. July 13 with additional information from the judge's order. It was originally posted at 2:19 p.m. July 13.