MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Concerns about COVID-19 led to a noisy disruption outside of the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater Sunday afternoon.

The group of more than two dozen activists, including family and friends of prisoners, drove up to the gates of Stillwater prison, endlessly honking their car horns.

They were trying to send a message to the Minnesota Department of Corrections after a 61-year-old prisoner died from COVID-19 last week, and hundreds of others tested positive. Since September, 903 Stillwater inmates have tested positive for the virus, and six of them had to be hospitalized. The prison is now on lockdown to try and minimize the spread of the virus.

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Toni Geurts was one of the protestors.

“I’m out here to help get people released, and to help people know that prisoners’ lives also matter, and people are dying inside and we need to do something about it,” Geurts said.

While the protestors lined up outside the gates of the prison waving signs and honking horns, the prisoners inside were chanting back and banging on the barred windows.

“It’s encouraging to know that they know that we’re here and fighting for them,” Guerts said.

Philip Holmes was one of those leading the charge in this protest. He has three friends inside the prison who he knows tested positive.

“It’s criminal and it’s abusive and it’s not right, and that’s why we’re here today,” Holmes said.

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He says they are calling for prisoners with medical conditions or short sentences left to be released early in order to stop the spread of the virus inside the prison.

“You don’t deserve a death sentence, especially if you only have six months to go, and that’s what we’re asking for,” Holmes said. “Eighteen months [sentence term] on down, non-violent criminals, that’s what we’re asking for.”

WCCO reached out to the department of corrections, which said it is currently:

  • Working with the Minnesota Department of Health on mitigation strategies
  • Increased the prison’s nursing staff
  • Implemented a lockdown to minimize the spread
  • Doubled the flow of outside air into the heating system
  • Although the protest group was asking for more non-violent prisoners to be released, the department of correction says the Minnesota prison population has dropped by more than 2,000 inmates since March.

    At the Stillwater correctional facility, they went from being heavily double-bunked to single-bunking the inmates, which has helped with social distancing inside the prison.

    Click here to track the latest COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths within the Minnesota prison system.

    Marielle Mohs

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