ROCHESTER, Minn. — Robert Schultz had less than six months before he would be released on supervision. He wondered if he'd make it that long.
He peered outside his Faribault prison cell every day and saw a spreading sea of red tags: the mark of an inmate thought to have COVID-19. He knew he was especially vulnerable to the virus. Schultz suffers from kidney problems and sustained lung damage from a 2017 house fire he started in a suicide attempt, which led to the arson sentence he now serves. His anxiety and fear grew as he witnessed several inmates leave his unit on the verge of death. It felt like the virus was stalking him around each corner.
“They walked out of there white as a ghost,” Schultz said. “They had to have help walking down the steps. Just seeing it and knowing the people that walked out and didn't come back was heartbreaking.”
Schultz's experience is one of many. Nearly 4,000 Minnesota prisoners have tested positive for the virus. One hundred are still recovering, according to Department of Corrections data. Twelve inmates have died from COVID-19.
Through interviews with prisoners, their families, the Minnesota Department of Corrections and criminal justice experts, The Rochester Post Bulletin, a Forum Communications company, found that inmates bore the brunt of a system ill-equipped to handle the virus. Prisons are structurally set up for failure, laden with old ventilation and cramped cells prohibitive of social distancing. The department said in spite of its quarantine plans, movement around facilities compromised much of the population.
Compounding these dire conditions, inmates were frequently confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and subjected to seemingly random quarantines. Inmates also told the Post Bulletin they were forced into cells with COVID-19-positive prisoners against their will. Some inmates who had severe health concerns, like Schultz, were denied medical release within months of their scheduled release date. Four people who were denied medical release later died.
Minnesota is one of 23 states that don't have the death penalty, but many inmates who weathered the past year in prison said it felt like they faced just that: a constant fight for their lives.
A perfect storm
If COVID-19 made a wish list, a prison would check most of its boxes: close quarters, a population of people who have preexisting health conditions, limited cleaning supplies and aging structures with poor ventilation.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Martha Hurley, director of criminal justice studies at the University of Dayton.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections had a pandemic plan in place from previous threats, such as the 2009 H1N1 virus, but COVID-19 required unique action because of its highly contagious nature and airborne spread. The enormity of the threat struck the department after an outbreak at Moose Lake prison in late April left inmates and correctional officers fighting for their lives.
“For me, it was frightening,” said Paul Schnell, who has served as the Department of Corrections commissioner since January 2019. Several inmates fell gravely ill, and a staff member was in such poor condition that he required a ventilator for months. “I think it became very real then for our staff.”
Schnell knew the department faced a series of enormous challenges. Minnesota’s state prisons range from 20 to 130 years old, and the containment plan had to be adjusted for each facility. Some have dorm style setups where several people sleep in an open area, others have cells with bars, and some — like Faribault — have closed cell doors with small windows. The population was also nearing full capacity, making distancing in already cramped spaces more difficult.
The department employed a variety of strategies to optimize the little space it had. The commissioner instituted strict meal schedules to avoid infections between units at the dining hall. In Faribault, staff eventually delivered meals to the inmates' cells. Schnell put “stay with unit” plans in place so inmates could mingle only in certain groups within their wing. Officials entertained the idea of bringing in mobile housing units or tents (adopted by prisons in some areas of the country) to house correctional officers or to isolate food preparation, but didn’t pursue it because of security hurdles, the commissioner said.
“Some of it is what we're stuck with, and we have to manage within that,” Schnell said. “Some of it is being more planful and thoughtful upfront about separations and differences in exposure and transmission. And we didn't always do that.”
“All of us knew this was going to happen”
On June 23, Adrian Keys became the first Minnesota state prisoner reported to die from COVID-19. Deontaye Russell, a Faribault inmate currently on work release, used to work out with him. He watched his rapid decline from “tough” and “strong” to being so weak he needed support to stand.
Russell only learned of Keys’ death when he saw it on the news. Four days later, Leroy Bergstrom — another Faribault inmate — died.
“I think that's when a lot of the inmates themselves took it upon themselves to start trying to be more responsible,” said Russell, adding that because protective measures from the department fell short, he felt the only way he could defend himself was if he took individual precautions.
From July to October, there was relative calm. Case counts remained steady and there were no deaths.
“All of a sudden, in late October early November: Boom. Wildfire,” Schnell said. From the first week of November to the first week of January, case counts exploded five-fold at Faribault, and seven more prisoners died system-wide.
The department’s lack of preparation for the second wave alarmed prisoner advocates.
“Some of this virus was predictable,” said Jon Geffen, a law professor at Mitchell Hamline Law School and director of the Reentry Clinic, who led a program assisting inmates applying for medical release. “I don't understand the lack of planning on that. It could be hubris that they thought they were doing a really good job. That we weren't going to have the problems that other people have … but all of us knew that this was going to happen.”
In hindsight, Schnell said the enormity of that wave shouldn’t have been a surprise. However, the speed at which the virus consumed Minnesota’s prison population shocked him.
“We developed isolation and quarantine plans, and I think one of the things that happened was we underestimated the dynamics around spread. So those systems became overwhelmed,” he said.
The virus invaded all facilities, but none were hit as hard as Faribault. Of the 12 inmates who died from COVID-19 in Minnesota’s state prisons during the pandemic, eight were at this facility. Schnell said he still can’t determine why Faribault was such a hotbed. The unpredictability of the virus “has been one of the most challenging things,” he said.
A report from Mark Haase, ombuds for the Department of Corrections — a post that is independent from the DOC — found that at least 60% of inmates at Faribault had tested positive at the time of review. That’s six times higher than the percentage of Minnesota’s adults in the general population who had tested positive or been presumed positive for the virus, though testing rates are higher in prison populations than elsewhere.
“As a state, we failed to prevent the disparate spread and impact of SARS-CoV-2 in State Correctional Facilities,” read Haase’s report.
There were some areas where Minnesota prisons performed well in comparison to other states. In a study of 30 states by the Prison Policy Initiative, Minnesota had one of the most significant decreases in population during the pandemic. The prison population decreased 19% from March 1, 2020, to March 1, 2021, from 8,857 to 7,214 inmates.
A dip in inmate admissions explains much of this decline, Haase found. When comparing inmate intakes from 2019 to 2020, he found there was more than a 33 percent decrease in commitments last year.
The department also tested prisoners at a much higher rate than other states. A study of inmate testing rates in 40 states found Minnesota outperformed all others.
Conditional Medical Release: a rarely used lifeline
Conditional medical release is a tool designated for adult inmates with grave medical conditions who pose no threat to the public, according to the DOC. Officials rarely used the program before the pandemic — Schnell recalls reviewing about two dozen proposed conditional medical release cases in 2019.
The department adapted the program to reflect the new threat of COVID-19, and began accepting applications directly from inmates in April, a departure from the traditional protocol where a medical professional proposed an inmate's release to the commissioner.
Applications were first reviewed by Dr. James Amsterdam, DOC medical director, to determine if the person fit the criteria of having a “grave” medical condition. If approved, the application was passed to a board of reviewers: officials from the Office of Special Investigations, the Hearings and Release Unit, Community Re-Entry, and Risk Assessment and Community Notification. Finally, the commissioner would review their notes and decide if the inmate should be granted medical release.
Gregory Green was so terrified of contracting COVID-19 that he started filing multiple requests for medical release when he heard of the program. He suffers from chronic sleep apnea, COPD, asthma and high blood pressure.
Green was initially denied on the basis that his medical conditions weren't severe enough.
He reapplied in the summer and was denied again, this time deemed a potential threat to public safety.
“I'm in here for a nonviolent drug offense,” said Green, who served several months of his two-year sentence at Faribault before being released on supervision in January. “I didn't volunteer to die here.”
Of the 2,292 inmates who applied for medical release, 157 were approved. The majority (57%) of those denied were on the basis that they did not have a serious enough medical condition, but about a quarter of applicants were denied because they were deemed a risk to public safety. Other inmates were denied because they had a life sentence — an automatic disqualifier — or didn’t have a stable residence to be released to.
Geffen and his team of law students received more than 600 inquiries from inmates and their families after they set up a confidential helpline to assist with medical release applications.
“We were so flooded,” Geffen said. He recalls puzzling over denied applications that he thought checked every box — inmates with autoimmune diseases who the department ruled didn’t meet the grave health condition standard, or those with 90 days left in their sentence who were denied for public safety. The calls from desperate parents who feared their child would die in prison still ring in his head.
In 151 cases where Amsterdam and the board of public safety reviewers unanimously agreed the inmate was eligible for release, Schnell denied it.
“They may have come to a universal agreement. But when all is said and done, I'm the one who is charged with that responsibility,” Schnell said. State law grants the commissioner final authority to approve or deny medical release.
DOC officials are not permitted to comment on specific inmates’ applications, according to Minnesota law, but Schnell said the rationale for his denials came after reviewing an application holistically. He said when individual reviewers inspected the applicant through the specific lens of their department, it doesn’t always capture the larger picture of their candidacy for medical release.
“That’s just a bit of a punch in the gut,” Geffen said when the Post Bulletin informed him of the number of applicants Schnell single-handedly denied. Geffen found the board's comments to be quite comprehensive and detailed. He was certain in most cases where reviewers expressed unanimous support for release, the commissioner would follow suit.
Four of the 12 inmates who died had been denied medical release.
Schnell said, “On a human level ... I’m not God, to make these decisions. At the same time, I feel like I made the best decision I could at the time knowing what I knew, and recognizing the dynamics of COVID-19 affecting some people in really unpredictable ways."
An inescapable threat
In early June, two weeks before Adrian Keys died from COVID-19, his workout partner Deontaye Russell faced a decision: move into a cell with an inmate who tested positive, or deny the transfer and be punished.
A Faribault unit Russell had just moved from experienced an outbreak. Days later, staff tried to return him to the unit as a way to contain possible spread to other areas of the prison. Russell didn’t understand that logic. He didn’t have any symptoms, hadn’t tested positive for the virus, and knew going back to that unit amplified his odds of getting the disease that killed his seemingly healthy friend.
Some of those around him endured segregation — a form of solitary confinement — to avoid catching the virus.
“I didn’t have that luxury,” Russell said. If he refused the transfer, it could jeopardize his planned move to a minimum security facility and quickly approaching work release.
Staff transferred Russell, and as he predicted, his cellmate was positive for COVID-19. Russell said his cellmate tried everything possible to avoid infecting him, though the two were stuck in their 92 square-foot cell for 23 hours a day.
“It’s just a moment in time,” he told himself, as he used his blankets to cover his face and body while he tried to read or watch TV. “You just got to go through it to get to it.” To his knowledge, he never contracted the virus.
A current Faribault inmate, who asked that his name not be used out of fear of retaliation, said it was almost impossible to fight off the threat of COVID-19 after he was labeled with a red tag, even though he had no COVID-19 symptoms or positive tests.
The Post Bulletin reviewed more than 20 of the inmate’s COVID-19 testing records. Not one of them was positive.
In spite of his pleas to staff and questions about why he was being quarantined, he said officers continually tried to place coronavirus-positive inmates with him, pointing to his red tag as explanation. He said they threatened him with segregation when he resisted.
Medical records show the inmate was transferred to the medium security unit where an outbreak later happened because there were greater accommodations for his neck injury than at the minimum security facility. The inmate said he saw only one way out of the red tag maze: tell staff he was no longer in pain and deny treatment so he may be moved back to minimum security. Medical records show he indicated a decrease in his pain level and staff approved his transfer.
He now takes over-the-counter medication to manage his discomfort while working a physically active job at the minimum security facility. He worries that if he ever complains about his injuries, he’ll be forced back to the medium security facility.
“It’s like a threat. If I put in and tell them that I’m having pain, I’ll go back inside (the medium security facility) and I don’t want to be inside. It’s terrible in there,” he said.
Rampant confusion, lapsing communication
While red tags dotted some prisoners’ cells, indicating they had tested positive or were symptomatic for COVID-19, a yellow tag signified someone was potentially exposed to the virus. At times, it felt like everyone was in one of the two camps, the commissioner said. This sense of confusion is exacerbated when officials are forced to make decisions based on COVID-19 testing data that is sometimes five to seven days old, he added.
A yellow tag appeared on Mark Huyber’s cell door at Faribault prison on Nov. 12. Five days later, the tag was gone. Three days later, it was back on his door. In the following week, guards removed and replaced it again. This 8.5-by-11-inch laminated piece of paper controlled when Huyber could leave his cell.
From Oct. 1 to Jan. 4, he spent over 70 days on either yellow or red tag quarantine restrictions, according to documents from the DOC and his journal entries.
Before the pandemic, inmates spent hours every day outside of their cells, congregating in break rooms, eating in meal halls and getting time outdoors. But as the virus surged through Faribault, they often had only an hour to escape for brief uses of a shower or phone (which inmates said they covered with a sock because it often wasn’t sanitized). Some decided not to call their loved ones because they were too afraid of contracting the virus while waiting in line for the phone.
Extended detention periods, little time outdoors, and inhibited access to physical or video visits degrades an individual’s health in many ways, according to ombuds Haase.
“These impacts, unique to correctional settings, take a heavy toll on physical and mental health, and incarcerated populations already experience a much higher rate of mental health conditions than the general population,” his report read.
The lack of time outside of his cell made Huyber plummet deeper into his depression, which he takes medication to manage.
“In the beginning, I was OK with everything. (I thought) this makes sense. They’re being precautionary,” he said. But as he was placed on and off quarantine, “it got extremely frustrating. Anxiety went up. Being in the cell so much, my depression got worse. Because there was just all this uncertainty.”
Huyber eventually contracted COVID-19, experiencing relatively mild symptoms that have since resolved. His frustration at the department’s lack of planning and communication, however, has not subsided.
“I know probably the last thing people want to hear about is what’s going on in prisons and people in prisons because everyone is going through so much,” Huyber said. But he asks people to imagine the claustrophobia of quarantining at home, the mental toll that takes, and multiply it tenfold. He said he’s not asking for his sentence to be wiped away — he takes responsibility for the actions that led to his incarceration — but he worries the stress of the year will send some inmates spiraling mentally and physically.
“You just start to feel defeated. You start to feel like giving up,” he said.
Vaccines on the horizon, death count still rises
With an increasing supply of vaccines for staff and inmates, the commissioner sees something that's been in short supply this year: hope. DOC data shows that more than 200 Faribault inmates are vaccinated. The department sent additional vaccine orders to the Minnesota Department of Health for future doses, the commissioner said.
Schnell is grateful for how inmates have tolerated the confusion, extended quarantines and fear. Many prisons around the state experienced unrest due to COVID-19 restrictions, but Minnesota had minimal problems.
“I give so much credit to the men and women in our population, because they showed us tremendous grace,” Schnell said. Additionally, Minnesota is one of the few states where zero state corrections officers have died of the virus — a rare bright spot during the pandemic.
But there is little relief for those like Rose Ballesteros, who last spoke with her father on Dec. 29.
“They’re telling me I’m going to die,” she remembers him saying, his voice muffled by an oxygen tube. Within two weeks, Rafael Ballesteros — a Faribault inmate — was dead. He was the 11th inmate to die from COVID-19.
“It's like they're out of sight, out of mind. Nobody cares about them,” Rose Ballesteros said.
An outbreak at Faribault in mid-March left Victor Artola dead, the first death since Ballesteros’ in January and the 12th of the pandemic. In a form Artola wrote to the DOC before his death, he asked why he was denied medical release given his ailments (family say he struggled with diabetes and high blood pressure) and low MnSTARR score — a risk assessment calculation for inmates. Artola's nephew also wrote to the prison in an attempt to help his release.
Instead of being taken to a nearby hospital, Artola died in Faribault prison.
“This is not right,” Artola’s nephew said when the Post Bulletin informed him of where his uncle died. He said his family's grief is not unique. He knows that COVID-19 has killed over 500,000 worldwide. But the anguish of knowing his calls and letters to the prison weren't enough to save his uncle keeps him up each night.
“He never got treated like he was supposed to,” he said.
For those who are out of Faribault — like Schultz, who is caring for his ailing mother while on supervised release in Wells, Minn. — it’s a relief to wake up and not see lines of doors spotted with red and yellow tags or hear cries from inmates who say they can't breathe. But even now, Schultz says there’s a sense of nagging dread for those he left behind. He fears his friends may become the 13th or 14th inmate to die from COVID-19, and he continues to be haunted by the image of those near-death men being carried from his unit.
“I can't get that out of my mind. Seeing that,” Schultz said. “It's dead man walking.”