MN Department of Corrections response to COVID-19

The Minnesota Department of Corrections is looking to support staff and inmates in a variety of ways in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Minnesota Department of Corrections is looking to support staff and inmates in a variety of ways in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. | 

Emily Ness
Updated: March 29, 2020 07:36 PM

Like other congregate living communities, COVID-19 poses a heightened risk for jails and prisons. As a result, they are working to insure their staff and inmates stay safe and healthy.


According to Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, prisons have a legal, moral and constitutional duty to help people serve out their sentences safely.

“We are really cognizant of the concerns of family members. I can’t tell you the number of people that reached out to me on Facebook or sent me emails or calls that have said: 'I’m really concerned about my son, my daughter, my uncle, whatever it may have been' and I really empathize with them and I think we take seriously our obligation to make sure that the people that are coming into our prisons and living in our prisons are safe,” Schnell said.

Schnell said the Department of Corrections has put together an Incident Management Team. The team has laid out a set of guidelines to keep staff and inmates safe. One of these new guidelines is employee screening.

"We do health screens on every single employee as they come into work every single day just to make sure they’re okay," Schnell said.

Another guideline is identifying high risk populations.

“We know that we have about 100 or so people that are over age 70 and up. We have a number of people who have very serious health conditions, including many that are being treated for cancer or undergo regular dialysis,” Schnell said.

In-person visitations have been canceled for the time being and new inmates are taken to one of two locations.

“Women are going to go into Shakopee—that’s the only women’s prison in the state and men to St. Cloud. All new intakes will come in there and they will all go through a period of observation in quarantine and then once they’ve been through that, then they can be moved to other facilities throughout the state,” Schnell said.

Staff and inmates who display symptoms of COVID-19 are tested. So far, 17 have been tested and ten have come back negative. The other seven, along with those they had close contact with, are being quarantined until they receive their test results.

“The wardens have identified space in each of the facilities where we would move people who either had confirmed cases or we would move people who were possible cases, who displayed symptoms. They would be held there until such time as they would be cleared,” Schnell said.

The Department hopes to provide a full range of medical care within their facilities, but will reach out to their community partners or the National Guard for additional help should they need to. The Department will also plan for the potential of long term care.

“We want to plan for every contingency,” Schnell said.

Other ways inmates are being supported is through additional hand washing facilities and bars of soap, two free five minute phone calls and waived medical co-pays for the time being should they seek care.

According to Schnell, inmates have also begun sewing masks and medical gowns to be used within prisons. They’d like to extend these efforts to the wider community as well.

“It’s a source of pride for incarcerated people to know that they’re making them and trying to help out during a time of crisis like this,” Schnell said.

In a time when many are out of work, Schnell said he is proud of his staff of essentials employees for continuing to do their part to make prisons safe.

“On any given day, there’s more than 3000 people across the state who work in the state’s prisons,” Schnell said. “I’m so immensely proud of them that despite everything that’s going on and despite the fact that many of us are being told to stay home, these folks have to come to work. We have to make sure that our facilities are safe.”


Emily Ness

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