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Lawmakers learn more about prisons’ work to contain coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed “high stress and high expectations” on the Department of Corrections and its responsibility to keep both inmates and staff safe, Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) told the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee Tuesday.

The committee, which Mariani chairs, heard a presentation from Commissioner Paul Schnell, who noted that an early step the department took to contain the spread of the virus was to increase social distancing in the prisons by evaluating non-violent offenders for possible early release. These inmates were within 90 days of their scheduled release date and judged to have a low risk to the community.

That step reduced the typical pre-pandemic statewide prison population of about 9,200 inmates to 7,958 on July 1, 2020, and 7,325 on Jan. 1, 2021.

Other steps the department took were to quarantine all inmates arriving from county jails for 14 days, institute temperature checks, install hand-washing stations, and implement “one of the highest testing rates in the country,” Schnell said.

Minnesota has administered the nation’s fourth-highest number of COVID-19 tests to an incarcerated population, Schnell said, totaling 87,217 as of Jan. 6.

The robust testing “allowed us to better control the spread of the virus … and move infected people to isolation,” he said.

A chronology of all the major actions by the department to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic is outlined in a Jan. 11 press release.

Transparency is very important to the department, Schnell said, as he touted an online dashboard of information to keep the public informed on the status of COVID-19 in the prison system.

Schnell told the committee the department has received $18.9 million to date from federal coronavirus relief funds, and has used it to pay for ongoing costs driven by COVID-19, including:

  • staffing and staff overtime;
  • medical supplies;
  • cleaning supplies;
  • staff testing;
  • paid pandemic-related leave;
  • air quality studies and equipment; and
  • personal protective equipment.

Schnell noted the department was able to significantly lower its cost for personal protective equipment because MINNCOR, the state’s work program for inmates, is manufacturing masks, gowns, and face shields for fellow prisoners and staff.

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