A judge said she will determine whether remedies need to be ordered to protect inmates and combat the spread of COVID-19 at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Moose Lake.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Leslie Beiers ruled that three inmates suing the state Department of Corrections have provided sufficient evidence to proceed with claims that the agency is failing to protect them from the virus.
"That the government is obliged to provide medical care for those who are incarcerated is elementary," Beiers said. "Under our state and federal constitutions, when the state takes a person into custody and holds them against his will, they bear a corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and well-being."
The judge ordered written submissions ahead of a May 19 hearing for the DOC to argue that it should not be obligated to provide additional testing, social distancing measures or medical treatment services that could otherwise be ordered by the court.
The order came late Wednesday in a lawsuit filed April 15 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and the state public defender's office.
ACLU attorney Dan Shulman said the plaintiffs are "gratified" by the ruling.
“We commend and have advocated for the system-wide measures the department is taking, but these changes are not coming fast enough," Shulman said. "We feel it is imperative to direct full attention to where so many confirmed cases actually are. While we are hopeful this case will set a precedent for the entire system, you can’t improve the neighborhood when a house is on fire.”
DOC spokesman Nick Kimball stressed that the judge's ruling was "essentially a scheduling order," relying solely on the claims alleged in the plaintiffs' petition. He noted the DOC has yet to have an opportunity to present arguments in court.
"We look forward to providing an accounting of the DOC’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts at the Moose Lake facility and across the system," Kimball said. "The order makes no conclusions about the case, but simply acknowledges that the petition made sufficient allegations that, if true and if no other evidence is presented, could result in a finding adverse to the Department of Corrections. The case now moves to the next stage, which includes submission of the DOC’s written responses to the allegations."
The lawsuit demands that the DOC be required to take immediate action to protect inmates and release those who are at high risk of health complications and have little time left on their sentences.
The Moose Lake prison had 33 confirmed cases and 31 presumed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday afternoon. The facility holds more than 1,000 inmates, with the plaintiffs referring to it as a "tinderbox" that could lead to the virus spreading widely within and beyond prison walls, overwhelming local health systems.
The satellite Willow River boot camp facility had 45 confirmed cases and seven inmates presumed to be positive, while the Lino Lakes prison recently reported its first confirmed case. DOC officials have said they're taking steps to isolate symptomatic inmates, implement distancing measures and distribute masks and sanitizer, as well as looking at early release options where available.
The petition, filed by three Moose Lake inmates, seeks what is known as a "writ of mandamus" — an order from the court forcing the government to uphold its legal duties. It is an "extraordinary remedy, to be granted only when the acts to be compelled are clearly and positively required by law," Beiers noted.
But the judge said the plaintiffs have established claims that the DOC has failed to perform an official duty clearly imposed by law and that the inmates have established a legal right that is not being met.
"Certainly, the challenges posed by the contagion are substantially beyond MNDOC's experience," Beiers said. "Nonetheless, its duty to (implement reasonable measures) is clear. The allegations in the petition, supported by sworn affidavits and declarations, demonstrate that thus far, MNDOC has not met its duty."
This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. April 30 to clarify the judge's commentary. It was originally posted at 2:46 p.m. April 30.