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Since expediting work releases to help with social distancing in the state’s prisons, Paul Schnell’s Corrections Department has allow 26 inmates with up to 90 days remaining on their prisons terms to leave early. In this photo, Schnell appears at a Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission hearing in February 2019. (File photo: Kevin Featherly)

Q&A: Schnell steps up pandemic early releases

With COVID-19 spreading to a third Minnesota prison—Lino Lakes—Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell has begun accelerating his early releases of prisoners who have up to 90 days left on their prison terms.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 26 offenders were granted early work release, department spokesman Nicholas Kimball said. That includes four released on Tuesday, he said. Four more were expected to be released by Friday, he said, but that number could change.

Those releases to supervision coincide with a recent spike in confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases among prisoners in the Moose Lake and minimum-security Willow River facilities. One additional positive case was reported Tuesday at Lino Lakes—the first coronavirus infection to be reported among inmates there.

Combined, 79 prison residents have tested positive for the disease, including 33 at Moose Lake and 45 at Willow River. Another 38, including 31 at Moose Lake, are presumed to have virus based either on symptoms or exposure. Altogether, 310 inmates have been tested across all 12 Minnesota prison facilities.

Just a week ago, there were just 14 confirmed cases at Moose Lake. At the time, Schnell said the thought infections there might have stabilized. However, Kimball said, increased testing has uncovered more confirmed cases, some among asymptomatic patients.

One inmate remains hospitalized, the department reports, but another who previously was hospitalized has since been released. DOC as yet reports no inmate deaths.

Employee infections also are a major concern. As of Tuesday, 54 DOC workers systemwide either were confirmed positive or presumed to have the illness, Kimball said. One staffer was critically ill and on a ventilator, Schnell said last week.

Last week, Minnesota Lawyer spoke with Schnell about his plans to release prisoners early and to ask if he will seek added authority to release even more prisoners to slow the disease’s spread. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.


Q: Earlier this month, Corrections Ombudsman Mark Haase urged lawmakers to grant you emergency authority to release prisoners 180 days out from their scheduled release to supervision. The governor said he agreed and would issue an executive order if the Legislature didn’t act. It didn’t. Are you talking to the governor about that?

A: You saw that lawsuit up in Carlton County. [To protect them from COVID-19, ACLU of Minnesota sued DOC for three Moose Lake prisoners’ immediate release.] That is ongoing. We’re kind of working our way into that a little bit.

We are having the conversation. My comments to the governor have been focused on the authority that we do have, as a starting point.

I think that while we have used work release for decades, we’re doing a variation that we’ve had to do much more quickly. Because normally, what would happen is [the inmate would] apply 60 days before he’s eligible and we go through this whole grand process.

What we’re doing now is turning these things around really quickly. We’re having to really develop a new system that is very different from the traditional system.

Q: Haase argues that your 90-day authority simply isn’t enough. It’s not going to give you the latitude to do what you need to quell the spread of this disease. Do you think eventually you will need that additional authority?

A: We have more authority than 90 days. The statute actually allows for work release at over 50% of their sentence, assuming that they’ve met all these other established and required criteria. So if somebody has a six-year term of incarceration and they have served three years, they could be released three years early on a work-release status.

Now that has not been the case, because I think the practical ramifications of managing somebody on a work release that long is very challenging—and they still would have supervised release.

So we have more authority, but we started here. Because, it’s like everything else that happens with this COVID thing. We’re building this bridge as we go.

Q: That 50% option sounds politically unpalatable. I’m guessing you would get massive pushback on that.

A: Not only is it politically unpalatable, I think even beyond that, correctionally, it’s not a sound practice, either. It gets to be way too long.

Q: So how many folks might ultimately be released under the 90-day plan? And is it going to be enough?

A: I think it can be. One of the things that we have noticed is that you have some people who don’t have stable housing options. So, it’s really not about the number of people. It’s about the viability of their release plan.

Q: I guess some people are going to want to know how many are coming out. Is there any way to characterize that? Do you expect a couple dozen maybe in the coming weeks?

A: As we roll on to May, that means that 90 days out there’s 50 or 60 people who are eligible in that pool.

We are working to expand that. Because ultimately, this is the reality. I think we have to think about this as a longer-term proposition and how do we get people out. And, at the same time, we’re very mindful of wanting these people to be successful. We don’t want to set people up [for failure].

Remember, there’s all these little pieces have to come together. So [an inmate] might be approved and ready to go. But their work release is waiting for that external agent assignment and to have the release plan approved, so that ultimately they don’t have a problem between the work-release plan and the supervised-release plan. And that’s why we’re trying to coordinate these activities that just have to happen.

And we’ll get there. It will become it will become much more efficient.

Do I do I think we may have to look at some longer periods of time in order to get the numbers we need from a distancing standpoint?

Yeah, that’s quite possible.

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