The Potluck

‘I’m so thankful’: Dept. of Corrections halts effort to reincarcerate 18 people on COVID-19 release

By: - August 15, 2022 4:49 pm

Photo by Alex Potemkin/Getty Images.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections reversed itself and will no longer order 18 people on COVID-19 medical release to return to prison.

The reversal comes after a Ramsey County District Court judge granted a temporary restraining order against the DOC last week, barring the agency from ordering the reincarceration. The DOC previously told the 18 they needed to turn themselves into prison by Monday at 10 a.m.

After the judge imposed the restraining order, the DOC asked the judge to postpone future hearings because it would develop and conduct a process for determining each of the 18 people’s conditional medical release, said ACLU-MN Attorney Dan Shulman, one of the attorneys representing the 18 people.

Throughout the pandemic, the DOC granted 158 inmates conditional medical release because of health issues that put them at risk of contracting COVID-19. Late last month, as first reported in the Reformer, the agency notified 18 of them that they would need to return to prison to serve out the rest of their sentence. DOC asserted it lacked the legal authority to let them remain on release because of the wide availability of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Two inmates filed a lawsuit last week against the DOC on behalf of themselves and the 16 others out on release, arguing they shouldn’t have to return, calling the order “arbitrary, capricious, unjust, and unlawful.”

Shulman, the ACLU lawyer, said the DOC made the right call by backing down. 

“I think it’s a very just and humane decision for the DOC to make and I’m very pleased that they did it,” Shulman said.

DOC spokesperson Nick Kimball said they hope to resolve conflict over the order as “efficiently as possible.”

“We are developing a process for and will make individual determinations regarding the custody status of each of the remaining 18 individuals remaining on COVID-19 conditional medical release,” Kimball said.

Dee King, one of the 18 people released on COVID-19 medical release and ordered back to prison, said he is grateful that — at least for now — the DOC isn’t sending him back to the prison in Stillwater.

“I’m so happy that everything worked out just how it should have worked out,” King said. “I’m so thankful to be honest.” King, who was released because of his diabetes, said this extra time on release will provide time to finish renovating his St. Paul duplex and find a renter.

On Monday, the court scheduled the next hearing for Oct. 21, when it will then discuss next steps.

Shulman said in the meantime he hopes the DOC will be transparent about the process to determine what each person’s medical release looks like and whether it will in fact take steps to send people back to prison.

“I don’t see any way they can bring these people back,” he said.

King has three months left on his sentence before he meets the two-thirds minimum requirement for supervised release. People have told him that three months doesn’t seem like that long, but he said they don’t understand the effect incarceration has on a person’s mental health.

“You go through a whole process of being belittled and stripped naked and being treated like a dog in a cage,” King said. “Would you be okay with that?”

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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. For two years she was also a corps member with Report for America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms and news deserts. She lives in St. Paul and likes to knit and watch documentaries in her free time.