The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee organized a drive-by protest May 9 at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, calling on the state Department of Corrections to reduce prison populations to 60% capacity in order to allow for proper social distancing within the facilities.
Photos of the protest shared on social media show signs of picketers holding signs and chanting, “Free Them All!”
Earlier this month, IWOC also protested outside of Gov. Tim Walz’s mansion and a prison in Stillwater calling on the state to release 2,700 inmates due to COVID-19 concerns.
The DOC said 14 Shakopee inmates have either been released early or put on conditional medical release for reasons related to COVID-19.
IWOC said Minnesota is behind the game, as 1,600 inmates have been released in Wisconsin and 1,293 released in Iowa for COVID-19 purposes. The correctional facility in Shakopee is of special concern to IWOC because of the incarcerated mothers inside the prison.
“Community members want to highlight the conditions that many mothers in Shakopee are facing,” the committee said in a press release.
Kelley Baer, an inmate at the Shakopee correctional facility, told the Valley News last month that she shared 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, 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 would be isolated for their protection, Baer said.
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 the 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 last month. “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.”
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 May 13, 23 inmates at the Shakopee women’s correctional facility have been tested for COVID-19, and all of them have come back negative. One staff member at the Shakopee facility has tested positive.
The correctional facility in Willow River had 59 confirmed positive cases as of May 13, and Moose Lake had 36. The only other correctional facility in the state with positive cases as of May 13 was Lino Lakes, which had seven confirmed cases.
“It’s no doubt true that the facilities were not designed with pandemic management in mind,” Nicholas Kimball, a DOC spokesperson, said in an email to the Valley News. “They are challenging environments to manage under normal circumstances. But every facility including Shakopee has detailed plans to manage the pandemic, developed in coordination with Department of Health around CDC guidelines for correctional institutions.”
Kimball said those plans include “stay with unit” plans that will limit the spread within the facility. Each inmate is also given a mask to wear at all times, and all newly-admitted women are quarantined for 14 days prior to arrival at the prison.
The DOC 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. Inmates placed in segregation due to COVID-19 concerns are allowed to bring their belongings with them, according to the DOC.