Judges affirm COVID-19 response at Moose Lake prison

While inmates did not receive accommodations requested in the early days of the pandemic, data shows that most have now been fully vaccinated.

FILE: Minnesota Correctional Facility Moose Lake
The Minnesota Correctional Facility in Moose Lake is pictured on April 9, 2020. (Steve Kuchera / File / News Tribune)

The Minnesota Department of Corrections "took the COVID-19 pandemic seriously at an early stage and continually created and implemented protocols to minimize the risks to the health of prisoners" in Moose Lake, the state Court of Appeals said Monday.

A three-judge panel rejected a challenge to the agency's handling of the public health crisis at the medium-security men's correctional facility, which in March 2020 was the first in the state to experience positive tests among inmates .

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and the state public defender's office sued the DOC last April, arguing that some vulnerable inmates should be released and that prison officials should be ordered to implement and enforce more rigorous precautions to keep the incarcerated population safe.

The appeals court affirmed a decision from 6th Judicial District Judge Leslie Beiers, who earlier dismissed the petition without holding an evidentiary hearing sought by the plaintiffs.

"The evidence submitted by both parties shows that, as of July 2020, when the district court filed its order, respondents were not indifferent, deliberately or otherwise, to the risks prevented by the COVID-19 virus," Judge Matthew Johnson wrote for the appeals court.


"Respondents had taken numerous measures to protect prisoners by minimizing the risks of infection. They did so at an early stage, even before the governor declared a statewide peacetime emergency on March 13, 2020, and they frequently revised and updated their policies and procedures as the situation evolved."

PREVIOUSLY: American Civil Liberties Union sues to release Moose Lake inmates

The DOC cited a variety of measures, including the suspension of visits and inmate transfers, the distribution and requirement to wear masks, increased sanitization measures and policies for the quarantine of sick and potentially exposed inmates as part of a systemwide effort to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But the ACLU pointed to alleged deficiencies in the plan, claiming lax enforcement of physical distancing and mask-wearing rules along with limited testing early on, which an attorney contended may have allowed the virus to "run its course" through the facility.

The petition was filed in the names of three inmates and sought release for all who either had less than six months remaining on their sentences and/or were vulnerable due to age or preexisting conditions — so long as their release would not endanger public safety and they had a safe place to isolate during the pandemic. Attorneys also sought an order requiring prison officials to enforce certain requirements inside the prison.

With two of the original plaintiffs since released, only inmate Adam Sanborn, who is expected to be discharged in August, remained when the appeals court issued its opinion Monday.

The judges, who heard oral arguments in January , said Sanborn failed to show that prison officials " knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to inmate health or safety," as required to find cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on all Minnesotans, and Sanborn’s situation is fairly similar to that of some persons who are not imprisoned, such as residents of nursing homes and other congregate-living facilities," Johnson wrote.


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The appeals court further noted that, at the time of the petition's dismissal in district court, the agency had granted 84 inmates statewide release under a new medical policy for high-risk prisoners, while another 166 systemwide had been accepted into an expanded early work-release program.

Moose Lake's prison population has slowly dwindled over the past year, down from approximately 1,050 at the start of the pandemic to 836 inmates on site as of Monday. Statewide, the population has gone from 8,857 last March to 7,211 this month.

The DOC has reported 189 confirmed or presumed cases of COVID-19 among inmates at Moose Lake since last March, with at least 97 workers also reporting an illness. There were two active cases among inmates as of Sunday. Each of the 11 prisons in the state has seen at least one confirmed case, totaling more than 4,100 systemwide.

A 63-year-old Moose Lake inmate died of COVID-19 in December , making him one of 12 inmates in the state prison system to succumb to the virus and its complications.

Vaccines have become widely available to willing workers and inmates in recent weeks. A total of 473 Moose Lake inmates had been fully immunized as of Sunday, with the vast majority receiving the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Likewise, at least 149 staffers have completed their vaccine series.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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