It’s impossible to socially distance in jail. Inmates don’t get personal protective equipment, and guards can't work from home.
Since Gov. Tim Walz announced a state of emergency on March 13, Hennepin and Ramsey counties have cut their adult jail populations by more than one-third and one-half, respectively, in hopes of reducing the likelihood of an outbreak.
It’s been more difficult to reduce the number of teenagers at Hennepin’s Juvenile Detention Center. That’s partly because youth are only detained if they’re charged with something serious, often a violent crime. (Bookable nonviolent charges include auto theft and drug sales.)
The JDC has cut some inmates loose, dropping from 52 on March 13 to 39 as of Wednesday evening. That's where the population has stubbornly hovered, give or take, as inmates keep getting released and re-booked for running away from home monitoring.
Essential jail staff such as guards, nurses, and cafeteria workers cycle in and out as well. When they report for work, they’re asked if they’ve traveled anywhere with a known exposure to COVID-19, or if they have symptoms like cough or fever.
Advocates for incarcerated minors, including the Legal Rights Center, sent the county’s Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCCR) a letter last week asking to see its plan for preventing the kind of catastrophic coronavirus spread seen in detention facilities like Rikers Island in New York.
The county responded on April 2, promising teenage inmates have access to health and wellbeing services and educational programming to ensure they’re “engaged, healthy and safe.”
“The JDC, like all correctional facilities in Hennepin County, is cleaned regularly for the health of residents,” the letter states. “As an added precaution, the JDC has implemented additional cleaning throughout the day. Furthermore, youth are receiving daily education about proper hygiene and preventative measures they should be taking, such as routine hand washing and social distancing.”
Jail staff contend the DOCCR is making conditions at the JDC out to be much rosier than reality – starting with the nonexistent social distancing.
They say JDC managers in the front office haven’t gone among inmates since the pandemic reached Minnesota, and are hoarding disinfectant wipes for themselves. For sanitation, staff were given bottles of unlabeled pink liquid and told to clean around their work stations every four hours. No one wipes down railings in the hallways or the buttons in the elevator.
According to staff, earlier this week they were denied the use of homemade masks and disposable gloves purchased out of pocket due to inconsistent CDC recommendations. City Pages reached out to the DOCCR for comment. Wednesday afternoon, the DOCCR said all staff were given masks prior to their shifts. Inmates still don’t have any.
“We feel like we’re fighting for our lives every day when we come in there. There’s no protection. They don’t care,” said a jail employee, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “It is a matter of time. We know it’s like a petri dish. One person gets it and we’re all gonna die.”
Members of the AFSCME Local 2822 union are asking the DOCCR for permission to wear gloves, hazard pay, and free parking. (Parking in an employee lot costs $25 per day, while the lowest-paid staff make about $17 an hour.)
The JDC is also experiencing a severe staffing shortage. Since the pandemic reached Minnesota, guards have been allowed to call in sick without being penalized. Many have done so. New hires turn over frequently. Those left are sometimes forced to work 16-hour shifts.
The DOCCR says the long hours are necessary to maintain standard resident to staff ratios. It says those looking for work serving their community should apply.