The Minnesota Department of Corrections has backed off plans to reincarcerate 18 people who were freed from prison to protect their health during the COVID pandemic, according to an ACLU Minnesota attorney who sued the state on behalf of the former inmates.
The state had ordered the 18 individuals to surrender themselves by Monday. But late last week, Ramsey County District Judge Mark Ireland granted an emergency temporary restraining order, saying the Corrections Department plan would force people back into prison "regardless of their individual health risks — which could be significant and even fatal."
On Friday, Assistant Attorney General Corinne Wright asked Ireland to cancel further hearings and said that the state will conduct individual determinations for the 18 people remaining on conditional medical release, according to an e-mail shared by ACLU Minnesota attorney Daniel Shulman.
"I think it is a very wise, humane decision by the Department of Corrections," Shulman said in an interview Sunday. "I applaud them for taking this step, and I hope that they will let these people remain on [medical release] where they should be."
The 18 former prisoners were among the 158 people granted conditional medical release as COVID raged through the prison population in Minnesota. Nearly 2,300 prisoners had applied.
Shulman said Sunday that the others granted conditional medical release likely finished the terms of their release, shifted to probation or else were brought back to prison for violating conditions of their release.
The Corrections Department notified the 18 remaining that their release was being terminated and they must surrender on or before Aug. 15. Under the department's COVID-19 protocol, conditional medical release can be rescinded without hearing if the release "presents a more serious risk to the public," the order states.
Shulman wrote in a statement issued Friday that the Corrections Department's decision was not only a violation of constitutional due process but also "unnecessarily cruel, callous, and punitive."
"This action runs contrary to the rehabilitative purpose of the department — our clients have complied with all requirements of their release and changed their lives for the better. Especially shocking are the separation of a mother in the crucial process of bonding with her infant, and the re-imprisonment of people caring for ailing parents," he said in the statement.
The Clemency Clinic, Mitchell Hamline's Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners and ACLU Minnesota filed the complaint in Ramsey County District Court.
The plaintiffs include Tanya Mae Wagner, who was granted release because she gave birth in December and is now caring for the child along with her mother, who suffers from a brain injury; and Dale Allen Jones, who is scheduled for open heart surgery next week and had his teeth removed in anticipation of the surgery.
JaneAnne Murray, director of the University of Minnesota Clemency Clinic, which represents Wagner, wrote in a statement that Wagner "does not deserve this sudden disruption of the eight-month bond she has built with her newborn. It is especially cruel and damaging to inflict this separation on an innocent baby."
The judge wrote that public safety already was considered when the release initially was granted. The Corrections Department was not allowed to terminate release, he ruled, unless "there is a specific finding that they are in violation of their supervised release conditions."
Those under conditional medical release already observe stringent conditions that include home confinement, sobriety, completing all assigned programming and regularly reporting to supervisors, Ireland wrote.
The state Corrections Department's justification for revoking the medical releases is the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, according to a statement from the agency. As of Aug. 3, the department reported that 35% of inmates are fully vaccinated and boosted, while there are reports of more than 100 active cases.
"We respect the court's order and will follow it as we prepare for the court to determine the ultimate path forward next week," corrections spokesman Nicholas Kimball said in a statement.