Kelley Baer’s schedule at the Shakopee women's correctional facility doesn’t change.
Her days consist of waking up for breakfast at 7 a.m., working out, playing cards and talking with other inmates in the "day room", watching television in her cell with a cup of coffee, walking around outside in the courtyard — usually in circles — lunch, sanitizing the facilities as part of the work she does at the prison, eating dinner, returning to her cell.
Due to precautions made due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Baer’s days are stretching even longer. The gym is closed, inmates can only spend one hour outside each day, and the women are limited to 1.5 hours in the day room. So Baer — who was admitted to the Shakopee women’s prison in 2018 for selling drugs — passes the time by disinfecting tables and chairs, railings, phones, door handles.
She shares a cell with an elderly inmate with underlying health issues, and she said she’s terrified that if COVID-19 entered the facility, her at-risk cellmate wouldn’t survive the disease.
“If I were to contract the virus and give it to her, she’d die,” Baer said. “I don’t want that on my conscience, and I don’t want to deal with that.”
On April 1, Baer sent an email to the Valley News. Her cellmate is not feeling well today, she said. She’s anxious.
Officers at the Shakopee prison pulled offenders with documented respiratory health issues, older long-term women with no serious health concerns, those with compromised immune systems and pregnant offenders into the gym to inform them that they were being moved to one of two other units where they will be isolated for their protection, Baer said. Baer's cellmate, who was scheduled to call the Valley News for an interview the morning the meeting took place, was one of those inmates, Baer said.
The DOC did not respond to a request to confirm this measure.
Tyler Winkelman, the co-director of the Health, Homelessness, and Criminal Justice Lab at Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute and a doctor at Hennepin County Jail, said if and when COVID-19 enters Shakopee’s prison, the size of the outbreak would depend on the public health measures already in place.
“If there are large group gatherings still taking place, if folks don’t have access to hand sanitizer, if they aren’t receiving education about covering their cough, it will be a big outbreak,” he said. “If there are strong measures in place already, like minimizing groups, isolating older or more sick patients in different parts of the prison, screening staff… it could be that the scope of coronavirus in facilities could be relatively small.”
A spokesman for the Department of Corrections said the inmates have access to hand sanitizer, have been given more bars of soap and more hand washing stations have been placed throughout the facility. He said staff members have developed plans to maximize social distancing while maintaining access to programming and supervision.
“We have been working directly with epidemiology staff from the Department of Health for several weeks to plan for the known likelihood of staff and inmate cases of COVID-19,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said in a written statement. “We are taking all reasonable steps to minimize the spread with the state’s correctional facilities, and we are implementing methods to protect those most at risk medically.”
According to a notice sent to all DOC staff members, anyone who walks into a correctional facility must first be screened. That screening involves asking each staff member if they are showing symptoms such as a cough, and taking temperatures.
As of March 31, four inmates at the Shakopee women’s correctional facility have been tested for COVID-19, and all of them have come back negative. The correctional facility in Moose Lake has confirmed one positive COVID-19 case — the first and, so far, only known case in a Minnesota prison.
Minimizing groups and continuing to practice social distancing in a prison like Shakopee’s isn’t easy, Baer said. Hallways are narrow and cells are tiny. Things like railings and walls are frequently touched by inmates.
The Department of Corrections said anyone who shows symptoms is placed into segregation, or restrictive housing, which is typically where inmates go when they have violated a rule within the prison, Baer said. Currently, no inmates are in isolation with symptoms. A spokesman for the DOC said anyone who is moved to isolation for safety reasons is allowed to take things with her. For example, in disciplinary segregation, inmates can only have one religious item, and they cannot have photos, newspaper subscriptions or radios. An inmate experiencing symptoms and placed in isolation for safety purposes can carry five religious-related items, 10 photographs, subscriptions to newspapers or other publications and radios.
Curving the threat
Prison reform advocates are pushing for early release for non-violent offenders across the state, citing crowded prisons that are too full to quarantine inmates if an outbreak enters the prison. The group, called Prison Policy Initiative, created a petition to call attention to the plea.
Winkelman agreed that keeping the prison population smaller would help reduce the size of an outbreak. The Shakopee correctional facility is holding 563 inmates, seven of whom are over the age of 65. About a year ago, that number hovered around 630 inmates. The DOC did not respond to confirm that the prison population was down as a result of COVID-19 precautions.
Scott County Jail, which has far more intakes than the prison, has drastically decreased its intake. Normally, it hovers around 130 inmates on any given day. On April 1 there were about 60 inmates.
Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen said the jails, courts and prisons are collaborative, but the courts make the decisions regarding who goes to jail or prison. The courts have reduced inmate intake by pushing back sentencing dates and handing out more citations instead of arrests for people who aren’t posing a risk to public safety. Hennen said there’s also less crime right now, since few businesses are open and there’s less traffic on the roads.
Keeping small populations in prisons also decreases the demand on health services for medical staff, which would help them pay more attention to respiratory screening. It would have the same effect on correctional officers, who would be able to pay more attention to keeping an eye out for people who may be symptomatic, and ensuring people are practicing social distancing and washing their hands, Winkelman said.
Winkelman said other options to reduce the prison population would be to release women from the prison who are nearing the end of their sentence or who are particularly at risk — that’s what the Prison Policy Initiative is calling for.
But this solution might add another problem. Winkelman cautioned that releasing the at-risk women who already have serious medical conditions from the Shakopee women’s prison could mean sending them into the world to fend for themselves.
“The civilian healthcare system has completely changed in the last few weeks, and has almost completely moved to telemedicine and virtual visits,” he said. “It’s important that people with serious medical conditions aren’t leaving prisons without access to health care.”
Winkelman said part of what will contribute to stopping the spread is using COVID tests and screening staff members and new inmates when they come through the doors. Anyone with any exposure or any respiratory symptoms should be tested, he said, and the ability to do that will depend on the testing capacity in Minnesota.
Even if Minnesota receives adequate funding for testing, Winkelman said it hasn’t been made clear whether the state and federal funding that has been passed to cover COVID tests applies to jails and prisons. If it doesn’t, he said facilities need funding to do testing.
And funding is a problem, because health care budgets in prisons are fixed. People in prisons and jails aren’t able to use public insurance like Medicaid.
“The budgets don’t get bigger when there’s health crises,” Winkelman said.
So far, the DOC has not hinted at any early release measures for non-violent offenders or those who are more at-risk. The DOC commissioner has the authority to grant conditional medical release and to grant work release status to those who qualify. The commissioner is actively considering how to exercise that authority in a way that protects communities but that also helps to minimize risk for those who are incarcerated, according to a DOC spokesperson.