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Minnesota’s 1st virus cases behind bars show prison risks

MINNEAPOLIS — COVID-19 has reached Minnesota’s prison system, highlighting the health threat to vulnerable inmates and the efforts to reduce the risks via early releases of nonviolent offenders.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections this week reported the first confirmed cases in state prisons — a staff member in the Red Wing juvenile prison, and three inmates and a staffer at the Moose Lake adult prison.

“We all know that our antiquated and overcrowded prison system is just a hotbed for some of this to happen,” Gov. Tim Walz said on a conference call with reporters.

Meanwhile, state officials reported five more deaths Wednesday, bringing the state’s total to 17, with nearly 700 confirmed infections.

No cases have been reported so far in the state’s county jails, where officials in many counties have moved aggressively to reduce their inmate populations. Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson said his jail has been steadily releasing nonviolent offenders. The population was 850 three weeks ago and is now under 500, he said.

“Our goal is to make sure our inmates don’t get sick, and if they do get sick, we treat them to the best of our ability,” Hutchinson said in an interview.

Across the country, defense attorneys, inmate advocates and families of prisoners have been calling for early releases and expressed frustration at the difficulties of checking in with clients and loved ones on the inside. The focus of the push for early release in Minnesota has been on people with minor nonviolent offenses, such as probation violations and drug crimes, and people who are already close to the end of their sentences — not people charged with or serving time for violent or other serious crimes.

“The prosecutors have not, and will not, seek the release of an inmate caught with a gun, or (who) is charged with a violent felony, or caused significant bodily harm or has a history of violence,” said Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

Minnesota’s prisons and jails have commonly suspended most in-person visits. Some are allowing video visits or increased phone privileges. Programming in the prison system has continued with social distancing. Staff and inmates still entering the facilities face stronger screening.

State Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said his agency is looking at several options including expanding work release.

Minnesota’s 11 state prisons have 8,900 inmates. Schnell said there hasn’t been a big drop in the past month, but officials have been reducing the population over the past year and a half.

“We take the health of the people in our prisons very seriously,” Schnell said. “I want to make sure we are doing this as good as we can, given there is no script for this.”

Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said local prosecutors are working closely with public defenders, sheriffs and courts to determine who can safely be released and to get the necessary orders, he said.

“They were ahead of this,” Small said in an interview. For example, Winona County cut its jail population by half; Wadena’s is down 37%. Le Sueur County developed a detailed list of what offenses would warrant booking an offender, he said.

Dr. Tyler Winkelman, who treats inmates in the Hennepin County Jail, said the large populations in close quarters make it difficult to practice social distancing . He said the big reduction in the county jail’s population “makes an enormous difference in our ability to decrease the chance of a large-scale outbreak.”