As a public defender for Ramsey County, Baylea Kannmacher is one of those essential workers who’ve had to report for duty even while the state has been shut down due to coronavirus.
She won’t mince words about how it’s been going.
“I mean, it sucks,” she says.
Months into what should have been a period of caution, quarantining, and social distancing, she says, she and her fellow public defenders have had to run a gauntlet of potential exposure to disease at the Ramsey County Jail.
When she meets with clients, she has to enter a big concrete room and attempt to prevent any exchange of germs by using landlines to talk through a window near the door. Until the end of April, she says, only one of those phones worked – as long as you kind of wiggled the cord to get rid of that blaring staticky noise.
“Otherwise, we had to scream through the plexiglass,” she says. “It wasn’t until a month into the pandemic that we were able to have full non-contact visits.”
She and several of her colleagues have also noted inconsistent mask-wearing among their clients as well as jail staff, and insufficient cleaning between visits. One public defender, who asked to remain anonymous, said in a statement that there seemed to be “withholding of information or outright deception about the health status of defendants.”
To make matters worse, concern about the spread of disease at the jail has gotten so bad that the Minnesota Freedom Fund – a bail-paying nonprofit that became famous after receiving staggering, widespread support during the George Floyd protests – stopped sending bail payers to the jail as of July 22.
“We made this decision upon being informed that an individual at Ramsey [County Jail] was transported the week before to the ICE center at Fort Snelling and from there to Freeborn jail,” a Monday letter to Sheriff Bob Fletcher said. “This individual was symptomatic and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, which triggered a lockdown at both the ICE detention center and the Freeborn jail.”
Other concerns included a lack of partitions between where the bail payers have to wait around for paperwork to be processed – sometimes up to 40 minutes – and where people are being released, and lack of mask use “for all individuals in the space.”
Executive Director Greg Lewin describes the setup as a “pretty small waiting room,” with a kiosk “maybe 10 feet” from where prisoners are being released – sometimes masked, sometimes not. The same goes for uniformed officers. The Fund has made a difficult decision in pausing operations in Ramsey, he says, but it’s a “relatively minor piece” compared to what public defenders and prisoners are going through.
“[Public defenders] feel as though they have to choose between the health of themselves and their households and denying their clients representation,” he says.
And meanwhile, those clients, public defender Carole Finneran says – people who aren’t wealthy enough to afford representation or bail -- are not going anywhere.
“It’s much harder to fight your case while in custody,” she says. “And my clients who could be getting out of custody are sitting in a cesspool of germs, including COVID-19.”
To that effect, Kannmacher says the team has met with clients who have been in jail long-term, and have been using the same dirty facemask for months.
The Ramsey County Sheriff's Department didn’t respond to interview requests, nor did it return the Star Tribune’s request for comment on Minnesota Freedom Fund’s letter. Lewin still gets the sense that the administration is willing to work with them on this. The jail has already dramatically reduced its population to ease crowding and lower the risk of transmission.
But meanwhile, public defenders like Finneran and Kannmacher feel as though they and their colleagues have been raising hell about this for a while, to little or no avail.
“We have had colleagues who have had positive tests [for COVID-19],” Kannmacher says. With a husband and an 18-month-old at home, it’s sometimes hard to physically and emotionally navigate minefield doing her job during this pandemic has become.
“It’s sad to say, but it feels like this emotional roller coaster feels like the new normal,” she says.