The Potluck

Judge temporarily blocks Corrections Dept. from ordering people back to prison from medical release

By: - August 11, 2022 5:21 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.

A Ramsey County District Court judge on Thursday granted reprieve to 18 people on medical release from prison, blocking the state Department of Corrections from forcing them to return  — at least for the moment.

The DOC granted medical release to 158 inmates because of underlying health conditions that made them susceptible to COVID-19. About two weeks ago, however, the agency ordered 18 of them back to prison on Aug. 15.

Minnesota has a mandatory minimum two-thirds sentencing law, meaning prisoners must serve two-thirds of their sentence before they are eligible for supervised release. Of the 158 who were granted COVID-19 release, 140 reached their two-thirds requirement during their time out of prison. The DOC is ordering the remaining 18 back into prison at least until they reach their two-thirds requirement.

Shortly after they were ordered back to prison, two of the inmates filed a lawsuit arguing they shouldn’t have to return, calling the order “arbitrary, capricious, unjust, and unlawful.” 

On Thursday, Ramsey County Judge Mike Ireland granted the inmates a temporary restraining order, stating that at question was whether the DOC has authority under Minnesota law to order them back to prison, and said he would make that decision at a later date. For now, however, the individuals out on release do not need to return to prison in four days.

The restraining order delays the ordered return, but Ireland did not provide a specific expiration date for the restraining order. Ireland scheduled another hearing on Aug. 18 for the court to further consider the temporary restraining order and perhaps a preliminary injunction, which would block the DOC from ordering the inmates back while their case to strike the order permanently proceeds. 

In response to the judge granting the temporary restraining order, DOC spokesperson Nick Kimball said they will follow it, but the agency ultimately believes the 18 individuals should promptly return to prison. 

“Given the availability of effective vaccines and therapeutic medications today, we do not believe the commissioner can justify continued release any longer,” Kimball said in a statement.

DOC’s attorney Corinne Wright at the hearing said it was “unfair” for the 18 inmates to remain on release because the risk of COVID-19 is essentially the same in the prisons as it is in the community.

“As COVID has been changing, so has the DOC and the community’s ability to both prevent contraction of COVID but also treat COVID,” Wright said. “There’s really no reason for them to continue to be in the community, and they need to head on back.”

According to the case’s complaint, 35% of inmates are fully vaccinated and boostered. Ireland pushed back on Wright’s comments and questioned whether COVID-19 risk in prison was actually equal to the general population for the 18 inmates, given the vaccination rate is much higher in the community.

“So doesn’t that mean that the risk of contracting COVID-19 in prison is higher than what it is if you’re out in the community?” Ireland asked Wright.

The order applies to all 18 inmates, though the case centers around two inmates who were released through the COVID-19 program. One recently gave birth to a daughter and the other has an open heart surgery scheduled for later this month — reasons, their attorneys argue, they should be allowed to finish their sentence on release.

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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.