With my son, Christopher in 2018.
My only son is in prison in Faribault, Minnesota, a town just south of the increasing unrest in Minneapolis. As you might imagine, tension is high in this facility. Not only because of the violent protests over George Floyd’s death but also because of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic within the prison walls. I live in Texas, but I’m well aware of what is happening in Minnesota.
The first two cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota were confirmed by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) on March 9, 2020. Both cases involved international travel. In his 3/9/20 letter to his Minnesota Department of Corrections employees, Commissioner Paul Schnell wrote that “The patients are currently in isolation at home and are recovering. MDH is working to identify and contact all those who may have come in contact with the two patients. These people will be asked to quarantine themselves for 14 days from their exposure and will be monitored for symptoms. State leaders have been preparing for this, and we have plans in place that prioritize the safety and well-being of our employees and the continuation of our services.”
Nothing in his letter referred to prioritizing the safety and well-being of the 9,381 inmates housed in the 12 facilities over which he was in charge.
However, in what appeared to be an attempt to stay in front of the situation, shortly after this letter, the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced the following;
COVID-19 Conditional Medical Release Process
Under Minn. Stat. § 244.05, subd. 8, the commissioner of corrections has the authority to place adult inmates on conditional medical release before they have reached their supervised release date if they suffer from a grave medical condition, and their release poses no threat to the public. Because COVID-19 presents a new threat to the health of people with particular medical conditions, adult inmates who previously would not have qualified for conditional medical release may do so now if their underlying medical condition puts them at risk of grave harm from COVID-19. In recognition of this new threat, the Department of Corrections (DOC) has created a process through which adult inmates who have a serious medical condition that puts them at higher risk of grave harm from COVID-19 can apply for early release. This process will temporarily replace the existing DOC policy concerning medical release related to COVID-19.
Under what now appears to be the guise of wanting to be “pro-active,” the MN-DOC informed all prisoners of this early release “offer” and encouraged those whose physical problems put them at “high risk” to complete an application “immediately.”
As a non-violent offender with serious medical conditions putting him at risk of grave harm from COVID-19, my son fulfilled all the criteria to apply for an emergency Conditional Medical Release.
Christopher Smith is a 48-yr-old permanently disabled man who walks with a cane and suffers from multiple disabilities. His “serious high-risk medical conditions” are considerable and include COPD, high blood pressure, hypertension, severe edema, traumatic brain injury, and compromised immune and circulatory systems. Additionally, he has had two back surgeries and several other major surgeries that have left him with permanent metal rods, screws, and plates throughout his body. He also struggles with severe migraines. However, one of his most life-threatening conditions is “Venous Insufficiency,” which means collapsed veins. This is a condition that makes it impossible to insert an IV into his veins for emergency fluid injections or blood draws. In other words, what is usually a simple task performed by a lab technician has become a complicated procedure that only a surgeon can perform—because the only way to access his veins is to place a central line directly into his chest. Should Christopher contract COVID-19, it is highly unlikely that he will survive.
As my son’s legal Inmate Advocate, I assisted him in completing the emergency CMR application, which was filed on April 24, OVER SIX WEEKS AGO. It’s important to note that back then, there were no positive cases of COVID-19 within the prison system. Sadly, that is no longer the case.
After filing the CMR application, I communicated several times with Amy Lauricella, Specialist at the Office of Government and Partner Relations for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Ms. Lauricella was the point person handling email communication for the CMR Review Team. She was always prompt—and pleasant in her response. I was assured that the medical review team was moving “as quickly as they could.”
As Christopher’s application passed through the approval stages, we were hopeful that he would be granted an early release and be able to live in quarantine on the outside in the home of a close friend who had agreed to provide housing and support. I also agreed to pay for an online education course for Chris and give him a part-time job in my growing ministry.
And so, we waited, day-after-day and week-after-week, all the while watching the situation unravel as prison conditions deteriorated. For some reason, the approval process came to a halt. It’s been 13 weeks since the MN-DOC made the CMR offer, yet from what I’ve been able to learn, not a single high-risk non-violent prisoner has been granted an emergency medical release.
While the DOC has been dragging their feet, every day the conditions inside the prison are getting worse. There are new COVID-19 cases every day, increasing lockdowns, loss of what little privileges inmates once had, and fewer guards on duty. Their food is being brought in, which is down from three to two meals a day. They’ve shut off the A/C for fear of the spread of COVID-19 through the air exchange system, and now, the cells are well over 100 degrees, like saunas. Older inmates, like my son, are finding it harder to breathe, which only exacerbates the severe physical and mental health issues that already define so many of them as “high risk.”
Do older and vulnerable inmates have to start dying before those in charge begin to release some of these men who pose no threat?
When the emergency CMR offer went into effect, there were no positive cases of COVID-19 within the prison system. Had the DOC staff and medical review team acted quickly and effectively, my son (and dozens of other at-risk prisoners) might be sheltering “at home” and out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Today, the Hazmat team came into my son’s unit and removed the inmate in the cell next to his. He had a 103 temp and tested positive for COVID-19. Today, they transferred four inmates from my son’s unit to quarantine. They have now implemented even more stringent forms of isolation for this vulnerable population, and what was already a tense situation is now a powder keg waiting to blow.
I’ve been following protocol and exercising patience, encouraging Chris to think positive and pray that God’s will be done. However, enough is enough. The time for patience is over. I am now, quite literally, fighting for my son’s life, and the lives of all the vulnerable, high-risk inmates who don’t pose a threat to the public and might not have anyone on the outside advocating on their behalf.
Commissioner Schnell, what has been the hold-up? The DOC should have started releasing these high-risk older prisoners weeks ago. What are you waiting for? Is it easier to send them out in a pine box rather than into the care of people who love them on the outside and are willing to help?
In two recent “urgent” emails (included at the end of this letter), Chris asked me to contact the CMR approval team and press them for answers, but I’m taking that further. Normally, I wouldn’t want to rattle any cages, because the ramifications of such actions on the outside can have disastrous results on the safety and well-being of a loved one on the inside. However, I’m not sure how it could get any worse for my son as he sits waiting in a cell/sauna to die.
As the bestselling author of 32+ Christian inspirational books (including Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children and How to Connect with Your Troubled Adult Children,) I’ve conducted hundreds of media interviews over the years. During this journey, I have developed professional relationships with hosts and producers of some of the most recognized national interview talk show radio and TV programs—and I want them to be aware of what is happening. This is wrong on so many levels I don’t know where to begin. If you’re one of those respected media individuals, please contact me if you’d like to help share the message of our need to stand up for the human rights of vulnerable inmates.
My son was clean from a longtime heroin addiction for well over a decade when after an almost fatal motorcycle accident, a well-meaning physician prescribed him Oxycodone, one of the most addicting drugs our world has ever known. The rest, they say, is history. Years later, at the time of his arrest, Chris had a significant amount of drugs in his apartment, intended for his use only. However, in some obscure Minnesota statute, when someone has a “significant amount” of one substance in their possession, it is automatically assumed they are “selling.” Because of that, he was sentenced to nine years and seven months in a Level 3 Prison.
Prisons today are filled with non-violent addicts. But that’s another story for another time.
I do not see my son through rose-colored glasses. Nor do I think that he shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions. However, I have worked hard over the years to connect with my troubled adult son in ways that are helpful—not harmful. In ways that are encouraging and not enabling. In ways that help him find dignity within his many disabilities. I’ve watched him make tremendous strides to focus on being accountable for his choices and to understand what it means to be a man of faith and walk the talk.
Today, he fears for his life, as do I. Literally. Today, he sits alone in a sweat-box cell that hovers between 100-103 degrees, finding it hard to breathe (with COPD) and praying that he won’t fall victim to this deadly plague that has now reached his cell block.
And so, my public question to Commissioner Paul Schnell (and all the “powers that be”) is this, “Why didn’t you follow through with your CMR promise? Why didn’t you begin to release these older, vulnerable, high-risk inmates who were no threat to the community weeks ago when the virus had yet to infiltrate prison walls? Why does it take someone’s death for those in leadership positions to realize you should have acted early when you could have made a difference?”
WAKE UP! Every life matters. Black lives, white lives, imprisoned lives, and free lives. Old lives, young lives, healthy lives, and sick lives. All God’s children matter—no matter their differences.
With visiting privileges prohibited, phone calls limited, and opportunities to see or hear our loved ones in “real-time,” my prayer for all my fellow parents-in-pain with incarcerated adult children is that the next time we’re able to see our kids, it isn’t looking down on them as they rest inside a casket.
If you’re one of those parents, I beg you to forward a link to this blog to everyone you know and ask them to pray for our kids, and to contact community leaders and Department of Corrections officials to encourage them to move quickly to protect this most vulnerable population–older inmates with high-risk health issues who do not pose a threat to the community. And even if none of your children are incarcerated, I hope you’ll share this post with others to bring awareness to this life-threatening situation.
My prayer is that together we will get through this and that those in control will take control and do what is right.
God bless and keep you and yours during these times of uncertainty and unrest.
Allison Bottke, Inmate Advocate and Mother of Christopher J. Smith, OID#226003 – MCF-Faribault, MN
June 6, 2020
Below are the last two emails I received from my son. He tries to be humorous when possible, but the fear in his voice is coming through loud and clear.
From: CHRISTOPHER SMITH
Date: 6/2/2020 9:28:53 AM
To: Allison Bottke
COVID 19 ISSUES
Mom, Good looking out on the funds and Media Moneys, you know I always B needing Books and Tunes, Mum..:-) Thank you so much!
I know it’s been a half a year, it has gone by quick for the most part but the last two I will say have been dragging on & on & on..lol.. I’ll take it one day at a time.
Mom, can you Please go on the MN-DOC WEBSITE and see how many Covid cases we now have in Faribault? The word is we have ALOT of new cases in here and a whole “K” building has been Quarantined off. K3- A&B ! That’s very Bad! (But could be very good for us old guys needing to get out on Conditional Medical Release before we die In here (if they ever let us out!) !!!!!
I’m very concerned with this new info. If I get sick, I’m a bit scared my time here on Earth will be limited. I’m trying to keep a bit of humor with my wordage but I’m Kinda/really starting to trip.
They FOR SURE MOVED TWO POSITIVE Covid cases in the quarantine unit across the way and once again turned our Central Air conditioning off, it’s not coming back on this time, breathing in this HOT cell even with a fan is NO joke.
Also, if we have cases inside the fence I THINK that you should e-mail/call the place that sent you my CMR confirmation and ask/show some concern about the speed of releasing inmates with health issues. Maybe they will get back to you with ANY response with ANY info about our pending applications, you know what I’m saying? Also maybe Kare 11 News & Fox 9 News should be involved/notified about the MN-DOC not letting us old guys with underlying medical issues out when they said they were going to do something MONTHS AGO!!.
I think with how Minnesota is trying to get out of the spot light of national news they may run a story on us getting sick and Covid in the Prison system. Anything you can do to help…please….
Anyway, I’m all about your new Internet marketing to your readers idea and Zoom calls and program, keep me updated and in the Loop, k ? I can tell you sound like you’re into it, so I’m sure it’s good. I do like to hear of you speaking about money & income, when it comes to your Ministry/Work you tend to put your work and help WAY before your income. That’s good, but YOU do have to make a living and pay the bills, ya know? But the Lord will Provide.
Well, I’m watching the news its 8:13 am. I could not sleep last night, no air on and its soooo hot in these cells. Any way the medical examiner just said Jorge Floyd had Meth, Fentinol, and alcohol in his system … So I’m sure he was not complying with the police… SMH.. it’s Sad, yes, no one should die from any police altercation but obviously there are underlying factors in this VERY sad case. I do not see anything positive coming from this whole situation.
Well Mom, I’m going to put this to the wind, they’re going to let us out to shower in a few minutes, so I’m going to TRY to send this on the kiosk and get in the water.
I love you, God bless you and Ttyvs..
From: CHRISTOPHER SMITH
Date: 6/5/2020 7:13:59 PM
To: Allison Bottke
#1 – 6-4-20
Mommason, I really think it’s a wrap. They locked down the Prison last night after I got off the phone with U. its 4:04 PM and they’re bringing our meals 2 the unit.
I told you we 4 sure have positive cases inside now. Right before lockdown yesterday WE heard the CO’s say the Prison was going to be on lockdown 4 a LONG time.
I don’t have a cellie. It looks like I’m not going to get a new one while we are on lockdown, so that’s cool. God blessed me with that comfort of having a cell/bathroom to myself.
I know you must have called/e-mailed the DOC about letting us older guys out because you said you were, wish I could know if/when you hear back from them. Well this also should speed up the Medical release process, I hope. I still have not heard anything back on my end, but everyone else has gotten denial letters saying why they were denied. So, I know I still have a chance. I don’t want to die in here. Breathing is not optional. lol. I’m not trying to get sick, ya no ? Let’s just pray I’m shown Favor.
Well I’m going to end this for now. The Dark Tower Movie is on by Stephen King, I’ve read all the books but I have not seen the movie, I already know the movie will not even come close to the books, never does. Especially any S. King books.
Well they kept us locked down the whole day & night and when they delivered dinner I asked if we were going to come out in the AM and they said prob not. Now the only question is.., How long we are going to be kept locked down OR how long is the Covid going to be here? I hope/pray WE hear something soon. Time will tell. Now time is going to start moving VERY SLOW being in this cell almost 24/7 alone with my thoughts. SMH.. I’m going to watch some TV & call it another day down, its all time served !!
Well I got up in hopes that yesterday was just a modified lockdown but not the case. The prison is on FULL lockdown. They delivered breakfast at 9:30 AM and the nurses came in delivering medication in full Hazmat suits, a bit scary looking I will admit. The Prison is not telling/sharing any info with us yet. I’m a bit stunned, I knew it was inevitable but when its actually in your face it’s a shock. BUT I don’t have a cellie so I’m very happy about that. 🙂
They called out 2 cells at a time to go down and grab our breakfast & a bag lunch, and toilet paper. I stopped and grabbed my mail, the guy behind me tried but he got yelled at…lol… I was hoping I got a memo about my release but not so much, did get my new The Week Magazine so that was a score. But I’m thinking that sometime today the DOC will tell us or pass out a memo telling us something but I already know it’s not going to be anything positive or fun. This is going to be hard time for a long time, this Covid is not going anywhere any time soon. It is what it is.
I’m going to start reading my new book today, I’ll at least read a chapter, k ? I need something to take my mind away. I wish I would have spent all that $25 you put on my media account on some other books, who knows when I’ll get to the Kiosk to buy some or send this letter out.
Well I’m going to watch Cocktail with Tom Cruz on AMC and then do some reading, I’ll write later on, love ya.
Well it may have just got worse. The Hazmat team just came into the unit, they started testing some guys (I can see them through my window.) Then they came up to my neighbors cell, his temp is 103, he is coughing. Then they tested his cellie, he was normal but they did the Covid test on the one guy and told him they would know soon. OMG ! If the Covid is next door to me, I’m praying I don’t have it, I don’t talk or mingle around those guys but they’re 6 feet from me. I don’t feel bad or anything but who knows. Having bad COPD and my collapsed veins makes it so much worse. If I needed an IV I’d be dead. It’s all bad ! Just more for me to think and worry about.
Well it’s only been 45 minutes and now they’re moving the guys next door to Quarantine & 4 others in the unit. ALL BAD! They’re all positive for Covid ! I’m so VERY sick, my stomach is in knots now!
Mom, PLEASE get at the Medical release person you’ve been speaking with and see what’s going on, tell them there is Active Covid cases in my UNIT! Even try calling my caseworker Miss Johnson, see if she can tell you anything or knows anything? I wrote her a kite over a week ago and have not heard back from her yet. If you hear ANYTHING email me RIGHT AWAY! IF YOU DONT hear back from me RIGHT away PLEASE overnight me a letter telling me ANY/ALL news cause if I see an email I’ll call or write you back THAT day, so if you don’t hear from me it means that we are locked down and I did not get the news, k ?
Well I read the 1st two story’s/essays in the David Sedaris book you sent. The 1st one about Dentistry was OK, but the 2nd one I found a bit more humorous about the now a days family life. “Attaboy.” I’ll read more today. I understand why you wanted me to read these short essays. I’ll keep you posted on my take on them.
OK, this is what’s going on for today, they are supposed to let us out for an hour a day, to shower etc. They just let out the even side of the unit a few cells at a time to shower use the kiosk and phone if time permits. I’m on the odd side so I’ll eventually get to send this out and get into the water, but I’m not even thinking I’ll get to the phone today. I’ll try tomorrow.
We are now hearing that they are letting us out for one hour in the AM then one hour in the PM, daily. Only 1 side out at a time. NO more chow hall, ALL 2 meals delivered in the unit. NO more movement in the Prison. Everything comes to us in unit. I don’t see this little bit of freedom lasting cause they just took 4 guys to quarantine. So it’s going to be 100% locked down soon, I hope I can stay alone in my Condo.
Mom, they’re letting us out now, I’m going to send this out, Just know I’m OK & please try to contact ANYONE in the DOC about my application or any info you can get/find out. I’ll call ASAP, if I can’t call I’ll Snail Mail you.
I love you, God Bless.