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Minnesota released some inmates who were susceptible to COVID-19. Now, 18 have to return.

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Minnesota released some inmates who were susceptible to COVID-19. Now, 18 have to return.

Aug 08, 2022 | 8:30 am ET
By Michelle Griffith
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Minnesota released some inmates who were susceptible to COVID-19. Now, 18 have to return.
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Dee King sits on the porch of his St. Paul duplex with his dog on July 31. King has been ordered to return to prison on Aug. 15. Photo by Michelle Griffith

Dee King just had a baby girl and bought a $350,000 St. Paul duplex for his family in the past few months. King said he likely wouldn’t have done either if he knew he had to return to prison on Aug. 15.

King, 43, was released from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater in June 2020 after serving five years. A diabetic, King months earlier applied for the Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 conditional medical release program, granted to some prisoners with medical conditions that make them susceptible to COVID-19.

Out of prison for more than two years, King has held a multitude of jobs, including operating his own printing business and buying a three-story duplex to live in one half and rent out the other. King says his parole officer for months told him he didn’t need to worry about being imprisoned for the rest of his sentence, as DOC gave no indication that the COVID-19 medical release had a set expiration date.

Last week, however, his parole officer called and said the DOC is ordering him to return to the Stillwater prison at 10 a.m. on Aug. 15, where he will remain for three months — a stay that will cost Minnesota taxpayers roughly $10,250, or presumably more due to the cost of managing King’s diabetes.

During the pandemic, prisons nationwide, including the 11 in Minnesota’s correctional system, recorded a wave of COVID-19 cases. Minnesota expanded its conditional medical release program — traditionally used to transfer inmates who are gravely ill or at the end of their lives from prison into supervised release — to include inmates with underlying conditions that would put them at risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

Minnesota received 2,292 applications for COVID-19 conditional medical release (some applied more than once) and 158 were granted release, according to the DOC. Every person who was approved for the medical release was aware they could be ordered to return to prison if COVID-19 conditions changed, said DOC spokesperson Nick Kimball.

Kimball said inmates were given a medical assessment and a public safety review for factors like criminal and disciplinary history. Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell signed off on all releases.

The DOC is ordering King and 17 other people back to prison in one week because they don’t have the legal authority to let them remain on supervised release, Kimball said. With readily available COVID-19 vaccines and treatments and confidence in the stability of Minnesota’s prison population, the conditions are met to call them back.

King said he didn’t receive an explanation as to why he was ordered back now, as COVID-19 vaccines and treatments have been widely available for months. He believes he should remain on COVID-19 release for the three months remaining on his sentence rather than spend the time locked up.

A letter from DOC dated July 26 to King also doesn’t offer a clear reason why he needs to return now after being on release for more than two years.

“Because the reasons you were granted early release are no longer applicable, the DOC is now rescinding your COVID-19 (Conditional Medical Release), and you are hereby ordered to surrender to the Commissioner of Corrections to complete your required term of imprisonment,” the letter states.

King thinks politics could be playing a role as Gov. Tim Walz, who oversees the DOC, is up for re-election and may want to appear tough on crime. 

Kimball denied the election had any part in ordering the 18 people back to prison. “It’s certainly very challenging for people who have been in the community and to have to come back and serve the remainder of the sentence,” Kimball said. “Unfortunately, it’s a matter of legal authority and what’s possible and what’s not, and that’s where we are today.”

An attempt at redemption interrupted

In 2015, King pleaded guilty to second degree attempted murder (with intent, not premeditated) and was sentenced to 130 months in prison. King shot at a man who was running away from him after a fight over money and a gun, according to court documents. The man was not shot. 

King jumped from prison to prison, ultimately landing in Stillwater. In early 2020, King considered the medical release program but thought he wouldn’t be eligible because he had committed a violent offense. King said the DOC had granted him release because of his good behavior.

In two years of medical release, King has held a variety of jobs, including selling broadband internet, delivering orders for Edible Arrangements, driving a forklift and working for DoorDash. He now primarily works at a business he started while incarcerated — a printing company that sells Christmas ornaments, candles, mugs and a variety of other things.

On top of his business, he just purchased the duplex. He planned to spend weeks renovating it for renters and his family to move into, but now he has to speed up that process.

King said he’s disappointed, especially given how little is left on his sentence.  

“This is very stressful, very confusing, because you want a person to succeed. You want a person to do right, and you see a person trying to do right, and then on a whim you try to take all that away,” King said. “It’s like you’d rather incarcerate me and mess up what I’m doing to achieve something positive.”

He is also worried about contracting COVID-19 once inside. King is not vaccinated due to his personal beliefs and has never contracted COVID-19. He worries if he were to get it in prison he would develop severe sickness.

“Didn’t you let me out to keep me safe and now you’re trying to put me right back in? Why?” King said.

Ten of Minnesota’s 11 facilities in the past 10 days have reported at least one case among staff or inmates, according to the DOC’s website.

A recent University of Minnesota report found states used various existing statutes and mechanisms to release inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially to the most vulnerable prisoners. 

The report found that states were careful about who they released due to COVID-19. Some  appeared to be more concerned about the public’s perception of the releases, rather than the prisoner’s health.

Many states approached COVID releases in a “risk averse” way, said Kelly Lyn Mitchell, the study’s co-author and executive director of the U’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. Many of the released inmates were already near the end of their sentence and were convicted of non-violent crimes.

Mitchell confirmed that her research found Minnesota’s laws don’t offer a lot of “wiggle room” in granting inmates early release.

King said he still feels like he is in denial that he has to go back to prison in a week. 

“It’s really just hitting now and it’s definitely not a good feeling. I just had a daughter and I just got this place so my kids can have their own rooms,” King said. “It’s disappointing.”