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State corrections officials are reviewing candidates for early release to help thin the prison population amid growing fears of a full-scale coronavirus outbreak inside its facilities.

Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said he will consider inmates who are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes and are within 90 days of their original discharge date for placement in expanded work, education and vocational training release programs.

"There are some who may say we should just lock them in their cells, feed them sandwiches and hope for the best," Schnell said Friday during his first appearance on Gov. Tim Walz's daily press call. "But the U.S. Constitution, Minnesota law, human rights standards and the teachings of most organized religions call for the humane treatment of those within our prisons."

In less than a week, the respiratory disease has infiltrated two facilities, sickening at least four staff members. Seven inmates at Moose Lake prison have now tested positive for COVID-19 and another 13 are presumed positive based on reported symptoms. Among employees at Moose Lake, one is isolated with a confirmed case, Schnell said, and another is presumed to be based on symptoms.

Two confirmed cases have also emerged in correctional officers at Red Wing juvenile facility 2 1/2 hours south. Tests are pending at prisons in Stillwater and Lino Lakes.

Those two dozen cases marked the first sign of the virus behind bars — sending administrators scrambling to contain it. Since Monday, the Department of Corrections (DOC) has staggered meal times to prevent shoulder-to-shoulder contact among inmates, limited programming and restricted movement between cell blocks while prepping quarantine space.

And the prison vocational program, MINNCOR Industries, began manufacturing cloth masks to outfit roughly 14,000 inmates and staff to wear at all times.

But as local jails move to release dozens of nonviolent inmates — especially those held before trial — pressure is mounting for Schnell to follow suit and authorize the supervised release of older, medically vulnerable and high-risk prisoners. Criminal justice advocates, who see this as a potential life-or-death issue for individuals with chronic health issues trapped inside cramped facilities, even demonstrated outside Walz's residence in St. Paul last weekend.

Earlier this week, Walz told reporters that 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.

"We all know that our antiquated and overcrowded prison system is just a hotbed for some of this to happen," he said, adding that the dilemma keeps him "up at night."

Public officials say it's not a matter of if they take the unprecedented step, but rather when. Timing is urgent, Schnell said, but he prefers not to release inmates during the midst of Walz's "stay-at-home" order — which lasts through at least April 10.

"We're not going to release anybody homeless. They must have an approved residence," Schnell told the Star Tribune. "We want people to be successful and do well [upon re-entry]. Just opening the door doesn't promote that."

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648