(TNS) — At 40 weeks pregnant, Cody Cuningham faced a daunting reality.
Her baby was due in 24 hours. But she wouldn't be released from custody for another eight days. A nonviolent felony drug conviction meant the 25-year-old would be separated from her newborn at the hospital and returned to Shakopee prison to finish her sentence.
In the midst of a pandemic, Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said he saw no reason to put her and the child at risk. So Cuningham became the first Minnesota inmate to be granted work release due to concerns around the novel coronavirus.
Freedom meant delivering her daughter, Grace, with the encouragement of her mother — instead of under the gaze of two correctional officers. The alternative is hard to imagine. "I don't want to let go of her," said Cuningham, of South Haven. "She's perfect."
Pressure is mounting for the Department of Corrections to release hundreds of nonviolent, elderly and medically vulnerable prisoners as COVID-19 spreads behind bars. Criminal justice advocates have peppered Schnell's office with phone calls and demonstrated in front of the governor's residence in St. Paul. They see this as a potential life-or-death issue for individuals with chronic health problems, who are trapped inside unhygienic facilities where social distancing is not possible and healthcare is limited.
None of Minnesota's 11 prisons are equipped with an intensive care unit and the state agency does not own a single ventilator. With visitation suspended for nearly a month and facilities on intermittent lockdown, families have restricted access to imprisoned loved ones and fear for their safety. Others worry they may never come home.
"Our mistakes shouldn't be a death sentence," said Elizabeth Johnson, whose husband is serving time at St. Cloud prison. "I feel I'm grieving a loss of someone whom is still present."
In less than a week, nine inmates tested positive for the respiratory disease and another 12 are presumed positive based on reported symptoms. At least four DOC employees, at Moose Lake and Red Wing juvenile facility, have also fallen ill with the virus.
A 48-year-old inmate at Moose Lake who collapsed and died Sunday morning after going into cardiac arrest will be posthumously tested for COVID-19, Schnell said.
County jails have, so far, been spared from an outbreak — likely because officials moved aggressively to slash their inmate populations last month. Hennepin and Ramsey County released several hundred detainees, some of whom are held pretrial. But state prisons have been slow to follow suit.
Mark Haase, the newly appointed Ombudsman for Corrections, penned a letter to Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders last week advocating for them to expand Schnell's release authority. Now Minnesota lawmakers are weighing a bill that would grant Schnell temporary emergency powers to place low-risk inmates on supervised release if they have less than 180 days left on their sentence.
"Current statutes may not give the commissioner enough discretion to release people early and adequately manage the population," Haase testified Monday during a virtual legislative hearing.
Haase pointed to Midwestern states like Iowa and Illinois, which have released more than 500 prisoners to reduce overcrowding and ease staffing pressures. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order last month calling for a moratorium on admissions to the state prisons and juvenile facilities.
Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL, St. Paul, who chairs the House Public Safety committee, incorporated the ombudsman's recommendations in his draft of the bill, which also adds protections for law enforcement and domestic abuse victims.
Walz expressed support for the proposal, saying he's open to using an executive order to free nonviolent inmates who are within six months of their anticipated release dates should the Legislature fail to act on the issue.
That may not be necessary, since Schnell is using his existing powers to review potential candidates for placement in expanded work, education and vocational training release programs.
Roughly 1,600 of the state's total 8,900 prisoners have underlying health conditions, ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes and COPD. Forty-one of those are also within 90 days of their original discharge date. Schnell's executive staff will assess which inmates should be prioritized and begin the release process as soon as next week.
"This is an unprecedented action, but these are unprecedented times," said Schnell, who said he cannot recall a similar response of this scale over his last 35 years in law enforcement. "The last thing we want is population instability ... We're not being reckless."
But Schnell acknowledges that an influx of parolees would require additional funding to maintain adequate supervision. Midge Christianson, president of the Minnesota Association of Community Corrections Act Counties, said she worries their operational system will struggle to accommodate dozens of new clients without added resources.
"It goes without saying that trading one problem for another is not something we're after," she said.
Timing is urgent, defense attorneys and inmate advocates warn, because conditions are deteriorating inside Minnesota facilities.
Staff members and inmates at prisons across the state, from Faribault to Moose Lake, told the Star Tribune that requested mitigation efforts were delayed and inconsistently enforced.
Hundreds of men sat shoulder-at-shoulder in the chow hall at Moose Lake until last Monday — after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported.
"We're like sardines, you're packed in so tight," said Troy Dulude, who is serving a 4-year sentence for burglary. "Guys are freaking out."
The Moose Lake prison gym is now closed, but Lino Lakes' remains open. And some facilities are still operating education classes with up to 30 students.
"Why are we not following the same rules inside that we are outside?" lamented a Faribault corrections officer, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press. "Soon it's going to be too late."
Many fear the outbreak behind bars far exceeds the 20 inmates reported by administrators, as dozens are sick but unwilling to seek medical attention for fear of being placed in solitary confinement and losing privileges."I don't blame them," said Jordan Blevins, a 37-year-old inmate at Moose Lake. "Why would you want to die in a smaller hole?"
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