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Commissioner Message to Inmates

Please take a moment to watch this video that has been distributed in all the facilities for the inmates to view. Each facility has plans for making sure all inmates have a chance to view it, though some might not have had a chance yet.

Updates for Inmate Families

All in-person visiting has been suspended until further notice.

The Department of Corrections is working hard to keep our staff, those incarcerated in our facilities, and those under supervision safe. We know there are a lot of questions about how we are doing that. If you have questions related to our COVID-19 response or planning, please send an email to DOCCommunityinfo@state.mn.us

Questions and Answers (updated April 4)

Are inmates being moved between facilities? The DOC is making every attempt to limit movement between facilities. All movement related decisions are scrutinized with health and safety of all involved and only being done when necessary  All inmates are being screened prior to any transfer and upon arrival at any MCF destination. If there are any symptoms evident that raise concerns, the inmate will be isolated.

How is the DOC identifying and managing incarcerated persons for symptoms of COVID-19? The DOC is a community with our own facility-specific medical clinics. We follow CDC and MDH guidelines in managing individuals with symptoms of COVID-19, the same as clinics in the community do. Areas of isolation and quarantine are identified in each of our facilities should they be needed. According to CDC, patients with confirmed COVID-19 have had mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms of: fever, cough, or shortness of breath. Some patients have had other symptoms including muscle aches, headache, sore throat, or diarrhea. Individuals who report not feeling well with symptoms similar to COVID-19 are evaluated by a medical professional and tested when meeting the criteria outlined by MDH and the CDC. We make every effort to isolate folks exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19. All individuals receive medical care needed to manage their symptoms, including medicine to help ease the symptoms, and anyone requiring hospital level of care would be transported to an area hospital. 

How do residents communicate with medical staff when they are not feeling well in the living unit? Kite forms are not the only form of communication available to inmates to communicate health concerns with medical personnel. Officers are in living units 24 hours a day and available to residents to verbally communicate medical concerns. A medical provider and nurse are also available 24 hours a day to discuss symptoms and refer to area urgency/emergency room if warranted. 

Are medical staff and/or correctional officers permitted to wear masks or other personal protective equipment?  (Updated 4/3) The DOC is in daily consultation with the MN Department of Health, which has dedicated an epidemiologist specifically to advise DOC on our decisions. We are following public health guidelines for use of personal protection equipment. 

Based on those ongoing conversations, the DOC is distributing barrier face covers for all in-facility staff and all people incarcerated in our facilities. All DOC facilities now have cotton barrier or surgical barrier masks for distribution to all staff and inmates. Instructions are being given for how to wear and maintain the masks.

The first type of mask being distributed is a 100% cotton washable and reusable mask. This cotton mask will be issued in phases while production continues for the entire DOC. The second type of mask being distributed is a surgical style barrier mask. As the supply of 100% cotton masks increases, the plan will be to replace these surgical masks with cotton masks. According to the Department of Health, there is no difference in the level of effectiveness between the two masks.

The Department of Health told the DOC these masks are meant to be source control and to act as a “catcher’s mitt” to protect other people from particles that could be released from the mouth or nose of the person wearing the mask. They are not the same as an N95 respirator, which is designed to protect the person wearing it. 

These barrier masks are not a substitute for social distancing and proper hand washing, which remain the most important steps to take.

Is the DOC able to make masks for personal protective equipment? Our MINNCOR Industry program is currently making barriers masks, face shields, and protective gowns for our employees. MINNCOR’s mission is to provide offenders job skills training to support positive behavior and successful transition into community. MINNCOR is employing the same processes and protocol as DOC facilities to create practices that allow for social distancing and protecting the health and safety of our populations. Participation in MINNCOR programming is voluntary for each eligible inmate. MINNCOR continues to pay inmates the same for any programming they participate in, including making PPE.

What is the plan for quarantine/isolation when COVID-19 cases are identified inside a DOC facility? Each facility has the ability to isolate and/or quarantine inmates, if necessary, when they exhibit symptoms. 

Individuals who report not feeling well with symptoms similar to COVID-19 are evaluated by a medical professional and tested when meeting the criteria outlined by MDH and the CDC. Every effort is being made to isolate those showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. 

All individuals receive medical care needed to manage their symptoms, including medicine to help ease the symptoms, and anyone requiring hospital level of care would be transported to an area hospital.

Social distancing practices as well as handwashing continue to be an important measure to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Our health staff have specific protocols for how to engage when an incarcerated person exhibits symptoms that might be consistent with COVID-19. Because those symptoms are similar to other influenza like illnesses, we have long had protocols in place that call for use of personal protective equipment and isolation/quarantine when a flu-like case is suspected. We have updated these protocols, with guidance from the Department of Health, to ensure they are appropriate for possible COVID-19 cases.

We also work closely with the Department of Health to conduct contact tracing within the facility when any staff or inmate is confirmed positive for COVID-19 by testing.

What precautions are you taking for the health of inmates? We are taking a number of steps to do everything we can to prevent COVID-19 from coming into facilities while also adapting our operations with the belief that there’s a chance it might already be in a facility. Every person entering any DOC facility has a mandatory screening for existing symptoms and recent travel. Those who are experiencing certain symptoms identified by health experts are required to go home. They cannot return until they are cleared by a doctor. In particular, the facilities are screening all staff.  If staff have traveled to a level 3 Travel Health Notice country, they must stay home for 14 days from the time they left an area with a widespread, ongoing community spread and practice social distancing.  Additionally, staff must also be sent home if they are experiencing a new, acute condition within the last 14 days such as fever, cough, and/or shortness of breath. We are also implementing processes to limit admissions to only certain facilities and are implementing intensified screening, observation, and isolation protocols for new intakes.

We have also installed new hand-washing stations at the entrances to each facility. Every person entering the facility is required to wash their hands immediately when they enter. Additionally, MINNCOR produced new sanitizing stations that have been placed at strategic points throughout facilities to avoid cross-contamination between separate units. We have also distributed additional soap so every inmate can wash their hands frequently.

We are also identifying medically high-risk inmates and reorganizing some living situations to better protect health.

With guidance from the Department of Health, facilities are developing their own individual plans to keep facility programming and other activity operational for as long as possible, while implementing conditions that allow for as much social distancing as possible. This includes education, recreation, flag time, work assignments, treatment, and other programs.

And health staff have updated protocols for handling potential cases of COVID-19 if someone is experiencing those symptoms.

It is also critical inmates do what is in their power to help keep themselves healthy. We are encouraging everyone to follow good hygiene practices, to clean their cells regularly, and to practice social distancing when possible, including during flag time and rec.

Are incarcerated people receiving medical care? Yes. We continue to operate our normal health care programs and our medical staff is also working to address concerns related to COVID-19. We have waived all medical co-pays for the duration of the Governor’s declared emergency to ensure no one is discouraged from seeking care.

Are incarcerated people with either a) medical conditions, or b) close release dates being considered for early release? The focus of all of us is minimizing risk of COVID-19 exposure and protecting safety and life. We are looking at all available tools to protect the health and safety of our staff, the people incarcerated, and those under supervision. We are exploring ways we can manage the population of incarcerated people – that includes impacting the number of people incarcerated and thinking about ways we can manage the living arrangements inside the facilities. The Commissioner has authority to grant conditional medical release and to grant work release status to those who qualify. He is actively considering how he can exercise that authority in a way that protects communities but that also helps to minimize risk for those who are incarcerated.

Are incarcerated people being tested? We are following the Minnesota Department of Health testing guidelines for the community. But given the Governor’s recent acknowledgment of the state’s limited testing capacity, we are also not waiting for a positive test to take appropriate precautions. If an incarcerated person exhibits symptoms consistent with COVID-19, we are following the Department of Health’s guidance for how our health care and other staff interacts with those individuals, how to isolate and quarantine them if required, and how to proceed from there to protect the health of everyone involved.

I am concerned for my family/friend who has a medical condition. Can you provide me information about their condition? We absolutely understand the concern felt by family and friends of those incarcerated in Minnesota. We are working hard to keep those incarcerated in our facilities safe and minimize the risk and exposure to COVID-19 and are taking medical conditions into consideration for all inmates. We are identifying medically high-risk inmates and are planning for the possibility of reorganizing some living situations to better protect everyone from potential infection. We are unable to share private medical information about individual inmates. We encourage all to stay in contact with friends and family and urge them to share any deterioration in their health with DOC medical staff.    

If an inmate is ill or asked to isolate, will their work assignment be terminated? Given the current situation, the DOC has suspended the policy that would terminate an inmate’s assignment after being absent for 10 days, if the absence is for COVID-19 related reasons. If an inmate reports symptoms related to COVID-19, and is asked to isolate or quarantine, or take any other restrictive measure, they will not be in danger of losing employment after 10 days, and their salary level will remain the same when they return to work.

What is the DOC doing to ensure continuity with the safety and health of DOC inmates placed in Minnesota county jails? While each county is preparing its own response to this pandemic, the DOC is closely coordinating with them. DOC leadership speaks multiple times per week with leadership at the county jails to collaborate on efforts and share best practices during the pandemic. All jails are held to the same standards laid out in Minnesota Administrative Rules Chapter 2911. 

What is happening with those on work release? We are working closely with the halfway houses and jails to ensure continuity of services as this pandemic unfolds. Each halfway house and jail makes its own decisions regarding programming. Many jails are limiting the work releasees to in-house programming, in an attempt to protect them and limit contact with the public, due to COVID-19. And many halfway houses have temporarily suspended visiting and pass activity in the community. Most are limiting activity to work-only status, in addition to necessary medical appointments.

Are ICE detainees in county jails receiving the same treatment as other inmates? All jails are required to follow the standards laid out in Chapter 2911 – for all their detainees, including those they are housing for ICE. All Inmates, including ICE detainees, who are unable to speak English are provided with information within 24 hours of their admission to the facility in a form that is accessible to them. Each county has measures in place to meet this requirement. Other than enforcement of Chapter 2911, the DOC does not have other authority over local law enforcement or federal detention decisions. Decisions on the release of ICE detainees are made at the federal level.

How are the prisons handling inmate mail? DOC staff handle all mail with medical gloves only and use standard hand washing procedures.

I heard a facility is locked down, is that true? There will definitely be times where any given facility experiences some form lock down – whether for security reasons or otherwise. But we are not locking down the facilities en masse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our goal across the department and all facilities is to keep programming and other activity operational for as long as possible. This includes education, recreation, flag time, work assignments, treatment, and other programs. Though how those programs are implemented is likely to look different than usual for some time.

We are learning from the experiences of people around the world and are consulting with public health experts, DOC commissioners and directors in other states, the American Correctional Association, and others to ensure we have the best information to make these decisions.

Each facility is going through periodic lock downs to varying degrees for deep cleaning and to help the planning process.

But even in states where mandatory “stay at home” policies are in place, the general public is not locked in bedrooms 24 hours a day. Similarly, in our facilities, we do not plan to completely lock down simply because the environment creates a challenge for social distancing. There might come a time where more restrictions are necessary. But we are not there yet.

That’s why each facility is working with guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health to create and update facility-specific plans to keep programming open while allowing for social distancing as much as possible. That might mean modified forms of certain programs. It might mean smaller groups going at different times to allow more spacing. It certainly means avoiding mass movements. But it does not mean restricting all movement in the facilities.

Do the housing conditions inside prisons allow for social distancing (i.e. are we only single bunking now ?) The corrections setting absolutely presents a unique challenge for social distancing. Every correctional facility in Minnesota is different when it comes to living units and the possibility of social distancing. But our commitment across the department is to keep facility programming and other activity operational for as long as possible. This includes education, recreation, flag time, work assignments, treatment and other programs.

Each facility is working with guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health to create and update facility-specific plans to keep programming open and allow for social distancing.

We are looking at the population and exploring possibilities to reorganize some living situations to spread people out and minimize risk, especially for those who are medically more at risk.

What is being done to keep inmates active in facilities to decrease idle and lowering of morale, while allowing for social distancing measures and/or quarantine and isolation? DOC facilities have implemented Stay with Unit procedures that include modified program schedules to allow for social distancing, while providing for phone and video access, recreation, and alternative delivery of education and therapeutic programming. These are not decisions that are made lightly or without exhausting all possible options.

The goals of the modified program schedules are simple: 

• To control spread by increasing the ability to practice social distancing; 

• To provide a sense of stability and opportunities for engagement; and

• Containment through the discontinuation of cross living unit programs and activities.

Due to limitations in the ability to social distance with certain programs and need to suspend volunteers from coming into facilities, DOC has discontinued barbering services, religious services, and contact sports.  Just like programming, ceremonies, and rituals are canceled outside in the community due to safety concerns, we are unable to continue them inside – despite wishing it was not necessary.  We are continuing to explore options and ways to continue providing alternate forms of services. For instance, on Monday, March 30, DOC rolled out an extended learning program for interested/eligible inmates. The DOC is also following MDH guidance for isolation and quarantine of suspected cases, minimizing the potential exposure of other staff and inmates to possible cases.

We are also taking aggressive steps to prevent COVID-19 from entering the facilities. This is the reason for the hand washing stations newly installed at the entrance of every facility and for screening anyone entering a MN correctional facility. We are dealing with a dynamic situation that means recommendations can change on a daily if not hourly basis.

What is the availability of video communication (for instance, are we reinstating video privileges for folks who had been denied them since no in person visits are allowed)? As of April 1, any person wishing to conduct a video visit with an inmate will be provided one free 15 minute video visit per week. Additional 15 minute visits can be purchased for $3.50, a rate that is 30 percent lower than the normal cost. For friends and family who do not have the necessary equipment to conduct a video visit or their loved one is not eligible for video visits, videograms (https://mn.gov/doc/family-visitor/send/send-videogram/) are an excellent alternative. A videogram is a 30-second video that can be recorded with a smartphone and sent to an inmate electronically. The cost is 4 stamps ($1.60). Each inmate also receives two free 5-minute phone calls per week.

In addition to the available J-Pay video visiting, MCF-Red Wing youth are being offered parental visits through other technology free of charge, which is being coordinated by case managers at the facility.

What is the availability of phone calls? (updated 4/4) All incarcerated individuals are now provided two free phone calls a week, as well as one free 15 minute video visit. As much as we would like to increase these opportunities, the duration and amounts are limited. Since in person visitation has been canceled, more incarcerated individuals are relying on phone calls. In order to accommodate large numbers of people who need to talk to their families, while also not overcrowding around the phones and allowing for disinfecting protocols between uses (which we have hired additional staff for), we do have to limit the number of phone calls people are allowed during this time.

As of April 1, any person wishing to conduct a video visit with an inmate will be provided one free 15 minute video visit per week. Additional 15 minute visits can be purchased for $3.50, a rate that is 30 percent lower than the normal cost.

Youth residents at MCF-Red Wing already receive two free phone calls per week, and now they are also receiving two free five minute calls. In addition to the available J-Pay video visiting, Red Wing youth are being offered parental visits through other technology free of charge, which is being coordinated by case managers at the facility.

What is the time period for the two free five minute phone calls? For instance does the week run from Sunday to Saturday and then re-set? The week is Tuesday to Monday. So the two calls reset at midnight Monday night/Tuesday morning every week.

Do the free phone calls carry over to the next week if you don’t use them in the week? They do not carry over.

Will there be an option for a longer phone call that you pay for instead of the free five minute call? The phone system has not changed. Phone calls are still placed as usual. There is simply an added option at the beginning to use a free call. If a free call is used, it will disconnect after five minutes.

Last night an inmate was cut off after five minutes. He was willing to pay for more time but that was not an option. The free calls automatically disconnect after five minutes. Inmates can place a normal phone call after the free call disconnects.


COVID-19 Resources

Minnesota Department of Health

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Institute of Corrections


Memos to Inmates

Update memo to inmates from Commissioner Schnell (March 30, 2020)

Social Distancing, Visiting Update (March 26, 2020)

Memo to inmates: Latest Information on DOC COVID-19 Response (March 18, 2020)

Inmate Memo on Coronavirus (COVID 19) & Seasonal Influenza from Commissioner Schnell (March 6, 2020)

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