MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The Stillwater Prison is on medical lockdown after nearly half of the inmate population tested positive for COVID-19.

At one point in October, 607 inmates had the virus, along with 62 staff members. Two inmates and one employee are hospitalized. The Department of Corrections says the rest have minor symptoms or none at all.

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From no cases in late September to Minnesota’s largest COVID-19 spread to date inside a prison, Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell is looking closely at what has changed.

“We are very concerned about the level of growth Stillwater has experienced,” said Schnell. “You start to ask how do you have this level of change this quickly, and that becomes one of the key factors.”

A contractor is now focused on air flow inside the old facility, where bar doors – rather than steel – mean air circulation can’t be controlled as easily. Now, there is also less movement prison-wide.

Schnell says inmates are eating and for the most part staying inside their now single-bunk cells. It’s likely community spread from dozens of confirmed employee cases this month is also a factor.

“That’s what makes this so challenging. We really invested in trying to minimize this from happening so we want to get on it and address this as quickly as possible,” said Schnell.

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Falisha Taylor thinks it’s too late with so many already sick. Her family members are some of them. She says one has asthma and is in the worst shape.

“He’s been saying how scared he is in there,” she said. “It’s just like they really don’t care.”

These family members have sent her emails saying positive cases were being mixed with others, on purpose. The DOC denies this allegation.

“I’m going to reach out to whoever I can to help them,” said Taylor.

She is speaking out, believing there is more to what happened inside Stillwater this last month.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota sued the state saying the DOC hasn’t done enough to protect inmates from COVID-19. The death of two inmates in the Faribault facility have been linked to the virus.

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A statement from the union that represents corrections officers says it will “continue to hold employers accountable to health and safety plans and push to ensure front line workers concerns are heard.”

Liz Collin