ACLU sues Waseca federal women’s prison over COVID-19 response

By Kirsti Marohn, Minnesota Public Radio News

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota is suing the federal prison in Waseca over its handling of COVID-19.

The low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca houses 635 women. About 450 — or roughly 70 percent of the prison’s population — have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of 14 women incarcerated at Waseca, and is seeking class-action status. It names the prison’s warden and Michael Carvajal, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

The lawsuit alleges that the federal bureau and the warden failed to take measures to prevent a widespread outbreak of the virus, such as releasing people with medical conditions to home confinement and reducing the prison’s population to allow social distancing.

“The defendants actually have a constitutional duty to keep incarcerated people safe,” said Clare Diegel, a staff attorney for the ACLU. “We believe they’re failing at that duty, and that failure is putting our petitioners and other medically vulnerable people at risk of severe illness or death.”

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. As of Thursday, the bureau listed two incarcerated people and four staff at the Waseca with confirmed active cases of the virus.

The Waseca prison is a dorm-like setting with bunk beds that are close together. Diegel said women share common areas, telephones and recreation and dining facilities.

The ACLU alleges that despite having months to prepare and guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to control the virus’ spread, the Bureau of Prisons “failed to enact basic precautions” to protect the incarcerated women.

“From the beginning, FCI-Waseca was not prepared to prevent the influx of COVID-19 that would come in from the outside,” Diegel said.

The lawsuit claims that in August, about 30 women arrived at the Waseca prison on a bus from an Oklahoma jail, despite prior reports of COVID-19 infections there. They were placed in a unit with other women, most of whom tested positive for the coronavirus within a few weeks, the complaint alleges.

“There was no reason why when positive inmates came to FCI-Waseca, this virus should have spread so quickly,” Diegel said. “And there was no reason why people should have gotten so sick.”

The lawsuit also cites a lack of sanitation, adequate health care, personal protective equipment and social distancing, as well as a failure by corrections officers and people in the prison to consistently wear masks.

It states that the warden has denied requests for compassionate release by people with underlying medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension.

The Bureau of Prisons and the warden are not taking advantage of their authority to release people who pose a low security risk into home confinement to allow more social distancing in the prison, Diegel said.

“We are concerned about a second wave [of COVID-19 infection],” she said. “We’re also concerned about the risk of reinfection, which health experts now know is a possibility. And we’ve seen in the Minnesota state prisons how fast those waves can occur.”

Diegel said some of the women who contracted COVID-19 are still suffering from lingering health effects.

The ACLU also is suing the Minnesota Department of Corrections over its handling of COVID-19 in state prisons, which have seen large outbreaks. Six people incarcerated in the state prison system have died after contracting the virus.