Inmates file suit after state orders them back to prison from COVID-19 release

By: - August 9, 2022 2:01 pm

DOC ordered 18 inmates who had been on medical release to return to prison on Aug. 15, including a woman who was released in 2021 because she was pregnant. Getty Images.

Two inmates within the Minnesota correctional system filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the state’s Department of Corrections, seeking to stop the agency from ordering 18 inmates back into prison. 

During the pandemic, the DOC released 158 inmates because of their susceptibility to COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions, through a conditional medical release program, which is typically used for inmates who are gravely ill or at the end of their lives. 

About a week ago, the DOC ordered 18 of them to return to prison on Aug. 15, asserting that it no longer had the legal authority to continue letting the inmates remain on release due to the wide availability of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

In a statement to the Reformer, DOC spokesperson Nick Kimball said every person who was granted the medical release was aware that they could be ordered to return if COVID-19 conditions changed, adding that from the beginning the release was meant to be a “temporary strategy.”

“While we believe ordering the 18 people to secure custody to serve out the required two-thirds of their court-imposed sentence comports with Minnesota law, the Department of Corrections respects the rights of people to bring matters such as this before the court,” Kimball said.

The inmates in their suit are asking for a temporary restraining order and an order for a preliminary injunction to stop the DOC’s action.  

The DOC’s “arbitrary, capricious, unjust, and unlawful revocation of (conditional medical release) will create extreme, undue and unnecessary hardship and injury for Plaintiffs and others similarly situated,” according to a complaint filed Tuesday in Ramsey County District Court.

The complaint primarily focuses on two inmates: Tanya Wagner and Dale Jones. Both were released through the DOC’s COVID-19 conditional medical release program and are now caring for ailing parents. 

Wagner was granted the COVID-19 release in August 2021 because of pregnancy, according to the complaint. Jones was released through the program in June 2020 because of lung issues.

The motion states that if Wagner returns to prison on Aug. 15, as ordered by DOC, it will “deprive her daughter of her primary and most important caregiver, with the probability of lifelong irreparable damage to both mother and child.”

Jones during his more than two years on release has endured heart issues that now require him to have open heart surgery, court documents say. 

He has open heart surgery scheduled for Aug. 24 at Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis. Jones had all his teeth pulled in preparation for the surgery, the complaint says.

The two inmates are represented by three lawyers: Dan Shulman from the ACLU of Minnesota, JaneAnne Murray with the University of Minnesota Law School Clemency Project and Brad Colbert from the Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners through the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

“The ostensible reason for requiring them to surrender and return to prison is they’re going to be safe from COVID now, but I don’t think anyone believes that,” Shulman told the Reformer.

The suit argues the DOC’s ordering the inmates back into prison violates due process and that the release was revoked “arbitrarily, capriciously and in abuse of permissible discretion.” The motion alleges the state didn’t consider the 18 inmates’ individual circumstances and health conditions.

COVID-19 is in nine out of the 11 facilities in Minnesota’s correctional system, according to the DOC’s website, and approximately 35% of inmates are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot, the complaint states. COVID-19 cases are also expected to surge in the fall and winter, the complaint says.

Shulman said that many of these 18 inmates have built up their lives in the time they’ve been released, and DOC is dismantling what the people built.

“My feeling, as a reasonable person, is I would hope that we can talk about doing something for these people short of throwing them back in prison,” Shulman said.

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.