The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a petition against the state Department of Corrections on Wednesday to release inmates at Moose Lake Correctional Facility.

As of Wednesday, the prison has tested 15 inmates with 12 positive results, one negative and two tests pending. It is presumed that 31 inmates have the disease, according to the Department of Corrections. Seven inmates no longer require isolation.

“The ACLU of Minnesota is suing because the prison and DOC have failed to perform their legal and moral duty to keep the people in their custody safe,” ACLU-MN staff attorney Dan Shulman said in a news release. “Prisoners tell us that people are jammed into cells with others who have symptoms of COVID-19, and the prison refuses to perform adequate testing.

"The prison and DOC have failed to take even rudimentary measures to prevent and stop the spread of COVID-19 at Moose Lake, endangering inmates, staff and the surrounding communities. Detention should not mean a death sentence.”

In a news release, the DOC said it had just received the lawsuit and is reviewing it but shares the sentiment that “COVID-19 has created exceptional circumstances,” as is noted in the court filing.

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“The agency continues efforts to implement early work and conditional medical release processes that fall within the parameters of current Minnesota law,” Minnesota DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said. “Our work continues to make adjustments to conform long-standing correctional practices with their emphasis on public safety to meet the compelling public health and fast-moving challenges that result from COVID-19.”

The statement also said the DOC’s efforts to date have been developed in close collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Health in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for correctional settings.

The lawsuit claims the DOC has failed to protect the health and safety of prisoners at the Moose Lake facility, which it calls the “epicenter for correctional facilities” in Minnesota. Moose Lake was the first facility to have a positive case. The only other facility to have a positive COVID-19 test is Willow River, which is about 8 miles away in Pine County.

The ACLU-MN is also claiming that at least one person in each unit has tested positive for COVID-19.

“Given the number of people incarcerated, Moose Lake cannot provide for adequate social distancing,” the suit claims. “Until recently, hundreds of inmates were still eating meals together, walking together to meals, and passing other units leaving meals, thereby increasing the risk of both contracting COVID-19 themselves and spreading COVID-19 to other inmates.”

The three inmates being represented by ACLU-MN — Roger Foster, Kristopher Mehle and Adam Dennis Sanborn — are claiming they are being kept in unsanitary conditions and were told by guards that cleaning supplies, including soap and disinfectant, are in short supply and have been instructed "to use less because once gone such supplies will not be replenished.”

Guards and inmates have been given masks but their use is not mandatory and only about half the distributed masks are used, the lawsuit claims. Also, guards who are allegedly sick are continuing to come to work against the recommendation of the facility nurse.

The petition asks for the immediate release of the three inmates and all others similarly situated.

Foster is scheduled to be released Oct. 8 after serving a sentence for assault. The lawsuit claims Foster has requested to be tested, but Moose Lake staff have refused.

Mehle is in prison for a felony threat of violence and is scheduled to go on work release May 14.

Sanborn is scheduled to be released Aug. 17, 2022, after serving a sentence for felony DUI. The lawsuit claims Sanborn is “particularly vulnerable and susceptible to serious physical impairment and death from COVID-19 because he is a smoker, has asthma and breathing problems and requires a prescription inhaler.”

“The introduction and rapid spread of COVID-19 at Moose Lake is undoubtedly the result of (the DOC’s) neglect and failure and refusal to provide even the most rudimentary measures at prevention, mitigation, and protection, as set forth in the paragraphs immediately following,” the lawsuit claims.

This story originally misstated where the Willow River facility is located; it is in Pine County. It was updated at 8:53 a.m. April 16. The News Tribune regrets the error.

This story was updated at 7 p.m. April 15 with additional information from the lawsuit and a statement from the Minnesota Department of Corrections. It was originally posted at 5:08 p.m. April 15.