Prisoners ordered to return after COVID-19 early release blocked for now

The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) has told 18 inmates released for medical reasons during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that it is time to come back to prison.

But now the group is fighting that order with the help of the ACLU.

Rather than a blanket order for all 18 to return to prison on August 15, they’ll instead take the time to review the health and medical situation of each individually before determining their custodial status.

"In the prisons, only 35% of the inmates are fully vaccinated and boosted," says ACLU attorney Dan Shulman.

Shulman is representing a pair of inmates released on strict home confinement during the height of the pandemic. Each with medical conditions the department of corrections determined would put them at risk of COVID-19 infection if they remained behind bars in a communal prison environment.

Tanya wagner was pregnant when she was sent home last year to live with her family. Wagner now has a baby girl she is caring for.

Dale jones was released more than two years ago with a myriad of health issues. Placed at home with his elderly parents, Jones is now scheduled for open-heart surgery later this month.

The Department of Corrections has told the 18 inmates that are considered minimal safety risks, including Jones and Wagner, that the COVID-19 environment has evolved and it’s now time for them to come back and serve out their terms in prison.

But they’ve gone to court to fight the request. 

This week a Ramsey County judge issued a temporary restraining order putting the matter on hold.

"If they're going to revoke, then they have to comply with due process and a lot of other rules which entitle these people to a hearing, the ability to call witnesses, an investigation, basically all the accouterments of due process. And so they haven't done any of that," Schulman said.

Wagner has a little more than three years left to serve, while Jones less than two years – both for drug convictions.

A total of 164 inmates received the COVID-related release that included strict supervision and oversight.

The overwhelming majority have now done their time on their sentences, with just the 18 left.

In a statement earlier on Friday to FOX 9, a DOC spokesman said, "We respect the court’s order and will follow it as we prepare for the court to determine the ultimate path forward next week. COVID-19 Conditional Medical Release was a temporary strategy to provide added protection for those at greatest risk of severe COVID-19 consequences when there was no vaccine or treatment available. That has changed. Given the availability of effective vaccines and therapeutic medications today, we do not believe the commissioner can justify continued release any longer."