At 40 weeks pregnant, Cody Cuningham faced a daunting reality.
Her baby was due the next day. But she wouldn't be released from custody for another week. 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 giving birth to 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, Minn. "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 unsanitary facilities where social distancing is not possible and health care is limited.
None of Minnesota's 11 prisons is 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 who is still present."
Thirteen inmates have tested positive for the respiratory disease, and another 30 are presumed positive based on symptoms. A 48-year-old inmate at Moose Lake who collapsed and died April 5 tested negative for COVID-19.
At least 13 DOC employees, at Moose Lake and the Red Wing juvenile facility, also self-reported falling ill with the virus.
County jails have, so far, been spared from an outbreak — likely because officials slashed 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 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 last week during a virtual legislative hearing.
Haase pointed to Midwestern states including 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.
However, the proposal is unlikely to be met with enthusiasm by Republican counterparts in the Senate, who don't support what they consider expansive changes that would flood communities with felons.
Sen. Warren Limmer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said he doesn't see the need to expand Schnell's authority at a time when Minnesota maintains the second-lowest incarceration rate in the country.
"We can address this at another time when things calm down," said Limmer, R-Maple Grove. "Our No. 1 goal should be the safety of our citizens."
Walz said 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, because 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 8,800 prisoners have underlying health conditions, ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes and COPD. Forty-one of those are within 90 days of their discharge date. Schnell's executive staff will assess which inmates should be prioritized and begin the release process as soon as this week.
"This is an unprecedented action, but these are unprecedented times," said Schnell, who cannot recall a similar response of this scale over his last 35 years in law enforcement.
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 the association's 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 criminal justice advocates warn, because conditions are deteriorating inside Minnesota facilities.
Staff members and inmates at prisons across the state told the Star Tribune that requested mitigation efforts were delayed and inconsistently enforced.
Hundreds of men sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the chow hall at Moose Lake until 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 four-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 workers are not authorized to speak to the press. "Soon it's going to be too late."
An officer who came to work wearing her own face mask for protection April 1 was ordered to remove it by a manager because they believed it would "cause alarm" among the inmates, union officials said. She refused and was sent home. The next day, central office staff sent a departmentwide memo announcing that the agency would provide cotton masks to all employees.
Still, many fear the outbreak behind bars far exceeds the 43 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 prisoner at Moose Lake. "Why would you want to die in a smaller hole?"
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648