Corrections backs Aitkin County Jail following mass arrest, coronavirus complaints

We reported earlier this month on the arrest of 22 water protectors who were held overnight in the Aitkin County jail. They claimed COVID-19 protection were inadequate: Some jailers were not wearing masks or wearing them below their noses; women were held in overcrowded conditions.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) is the state licensing body for county jails. Healing Minnesota Stories emailed the DOC, sharing the post with the water protectors’ stories. We asked if Aitkin County followed proper procedures.

The Department of Corrections — which does not have a great track record on COVID-19 prevention — responded today, saying not only that the “jail followed COVID-19 precautions” but also that the department “doesn’t have any violations against any jails due to COVID-19” since the pandemic began.

Line 3 protest in Aitkin County Dec. 14.

Water protectors held an action Dec. 14 in Aitkin County near where the Line 3 pipeline would tunnel under the Mississippi River. They trespassed on lands where Enbridge holds an easement, near a construction site.

Twenty of the 22 arrested received misdemeanor charges for trespass and unlawful assembly, dropped down for suspicion of gross misdemeanor charges. Nonetheless, they spent the night in jail worrying about COVID-19 exposure.

Healing Minnesota Stories emailed three questions to DOC communications staff. The questions and responses are below, with minor edits:

Q: Please provide me with the state’s licensing conditions for jails concerning COVID-19 prevention?

A: MN Chapter 2960 administrative rules dictate that medical care and procedures are the responsibility of the health care provider for each facility. For county jails in Minnesota, COVID-19 medical protocols are generally developed by each facility with input from their medical provider, the Minnesota Department of Health, and in some cases the County’s Public Health Department. These policies, procedures and protocols are developed “under the direction of the health authority.” 

Q: Please provide me with a list of any jails cited for infractions of these COVID-19 prevention requirements, along with any publicly available details on those cases.

A: The DOC doesn’t have any violations against any jails due to COVID-19. Jails are working in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health to guide their protocols and practices around COVID-19.

[Note: The Minnesota Health Department says its role with respect to jails “is to provide recommendations and guidance related to the control of infectious diseases, as needed.” That is to say, they don’t do enforcement.]

Q: Please respond to the situation in the Aitkin County Jail, where not all jailers were wearing masks, or wearing them appropriately, and putting 12 women in a jail area meant for eight. Does Corrections see this as a problem, and if so, what measures will you take?

A: The jail followed COVID-19 precautions, including keeping a “cohort” of inmates together and not mixing with other inmates. The jail’s administrator notified the DOC’s jail inspector about a mass arrest that had occurred. The facility planned on using the recreation room as temporary housing as set out in their mass arrest policy (which you will need to obtain from the county). Our DOC inspector for that jail confirmed Aitkin County’s staffing levels were adequate and that they had a plan to maintain classification separation (they received additional staffing from neighboring counties). The next day, the 20 arrests appeared in court and were released.

End email exchange.

Unidentified law enforcement officers stood in the middle of Great River Road in Aitkin County Dec. 14, prior to the arrests. Several stood close together, not wearing masks.

The DOC responses didn’t address the appropriateness of putting 12 female inmates in a jail area meant for eight. Four women slept on the floor on mats. It appears DOC doesn’t see jail overcrowding as an issue for coronavirus spread, which seems surprising.

DOC’s answer also makes the false assumption that by keeping the water protectors in a “cohort” somehow keeps them safer from COVID-19. Just because they were arrested at the same protest doesn’t mean they even know one another. One could have COVID-19, be asymptomatic, and spread the disease to others.

Lastly, DOC seems little concerned about reports from Aitkin County Jail inmates that staff aren’t wearing protective masks, or are wearing them improperly.

To understand COVD jail protocols, the DOC referred to Minnesota Rules Chapter 2960, which is “Licensure and Certification for Programs for Children.” That seems like an error.

More likely, they meant Chapter 2911, which covers jail regulations. It includes sections on “Inmate welfare” and “Environmental-Personal Health and Sanitation.” Those didn’t have any mention of COVID-19 protocols and procedures. The language was fairly generic, such as “2911.5800” Subpart 1, which reads:

Availability of resources, general.

Under the direction of a health authority, a [jail] facility shall develop a written policy and procedure that provides for the delivery of health care services, including medical, dental, and mental health services.

There’s not much there to help understand whether Aitkin County Jail followed protocols.

Minnesota has reduced its state prison population since the start of the pandemic, an apparent effort to reduce infection spreads.

Minnesota prison population, March 1- Dec. 21, 2020. Source: Minnesota Department of Corrections

even then, the prisons are in crisis. On Nov. 13, KARE-TV reported: “COVID outbreaks in state prisons among worst in the nation.” The story begins:

After a relatively quiet stretch of several months, the state now has the 6th highest infection rate among prison inmates in the country and the 3rd highest among corrections staff.

On Dec. 11, the StarTribune reported that Ramsey County District Judge Sara Grewing “blasted” the DOC for its failure to control the pandemic. She ordered Corrections to appear in court Jan. 15 to explain themselves.

It’s clear that incarcerating people can lead to COVID-19 spread and the DOC has been unable to contain it.

Given the current state of the pandemic, locking water protectors in jail overnight for misdemeanor offenses seems ridiculous.

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