ST. PAUL -- As lawmakers face increasing pressure to take action to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in Minnesota correctional facilities, state legislators have moved forward a bill overhauling public safety practices for the duration of the pandemic.
The Minnesota House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday, April 30, passed by a 10-7 vote a bill that would release some nonviolent inmates from custody early, limit prison occupancy to one inmate per cell, provide free phone and video calls to inmates unable to have in-person visits and more as coronavirus spreads throughout Minnesota. Proponents of the bill say reducing inmate populations and concentrations within facilities will help inmates and staff social distance and prevent catching and spreading the virus.
The novel coronavirus has already made its way into some state prisons. According to the state Department of Corrections, as of Wednesday, 79 incarcerated Minnesotans and 39 prison staffers have tested positive for the virus, with the largest outbreaks at Willow River (45 inmates) and Moose Lake (33).
Thursday's vote comes on the heels of a letter sent by 35 organizations to Gov. Tim Walz urging him to take executive action to protect the state's prison population from a coronavirus outbreak like other states across the country have seen. The organizations -- which include the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, NAACP-Minneapolis, Second Chance Coalition and 32 others -- penned a draft executive order for Walz to sign.
At a Thursday news conference, Walz said his administration is weighing which inmates could be released early, but said he is concerned about releasing them if they have stable housing to go to after prison.
The bill now moves on for consideration by the House Ways and Means committee before it can reach the floor for a vote.
Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.