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Mark Haase
“We failed to protect incarcerated people and Corrections staff from disparate impact of COVID-19,” Corrections Ombuds Mark Haase said in an email Thursday. “If we don’t change what we’re doing based on what we’ve learned, next time could be far worse.” (File photo: Kevin Featherly)

Bar Buzz: Report: Prisons’ COVID-19 response fails

In a report issued Monday, the Ombuds for Corrections office criticizes state leaders for failing to do enough to prevent COVID-19 from rampaging through the state prison system.

The report, dated March 1, was forwarded to the governor’s office and made public on Wednesday, said Corrections Ombuds Mark Haase. (Haase uses the title “ombuds” as a gender-neutral alternative to “ombudsman.”)

“We failed to protect incarcerated people and Corrections staff from disparate impact of COVID-19,” Haase said in an email Thursday. “If we don’t change what we’re doing based on what we’ve learned, next time could be far worse.”

He added that he disagrees with the current vaccination plans announced by Gov. Tim Walz — to whom he reports — because “it doesn’t vaccinate inmates and staff quickly enough.”

On Feb. 25, the governor announced that Minnesota’s vaccination policy would remain focused on seniors, before expanding to other populations. His guidance called for vaccinating 70% of adults 65 years of age or older before other groups get shots.

The Haase report finds no evidence of malfeasance by the Corrections Department and notes that prison staffers have worked hard to combat the pandemic.

“However, by other measures, our corrections system — and we as a state — have clearly failed to protect those who are incarcerated on our behalf from harm and consequences beyond what was contemplated in their sentencing,” the report says.

“Consequently,” it continues, “those who work with them, and their communities, have also been disparately affected.”

Since the outbreak began, 3,899 Minnesota prison inmates have been diagnosed with COVID-19, along with 1,031 staff members. Eleven inmates have died, including seven at the Faribault state prison.

The report says that, based on investigations and observations by Haase’s office, the overall actions by Corrections in responding to the virus were not objectively unreasonable, contrary to law or otherwise deficient.

However, it adds, “This does not mean that what was done was necessarily sufficient, that every action taken was the right one, nor that the Ombuds agreed with every action taken.”

Policies, resources and infrastructure at a systems level fell short of dealing with the disease effectively, the report says.

More population reductions probably would help, the report says, but legal constraints, a lack housing and treatment, and risk assessments based on these other limitations, have all gotten in the way.

The report calls for the governor to accelerate vaccinations in the prisons and for the Corrections commissioner to make better use of work- and medical-release policies and other tools that could reduce the population.

It also calls on the Legislature to revisit the state’s emergency prison evacuation authority under Minn. Stat. § 243.57, which allows inmate removal during epidemics. “It is not suited to a system-wide pandemic,” the report said.

One idea that lawmakers should consider, the report says, is creating an independent emergency review panel to make prison release decisions and assist in public safety risk assessments.

“We need to do everything in our power,” the report concludes, “to end this as soon as possible and work to ensure that we are prepared for a similar situation in the future.”

Haase’s office was revived through legislation in 2019; he began work at the beginning of 2020. The office’s 12-page 2021 report is just the second of his tenure there.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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