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Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, center, talks with inmates as he does a walk-through at the Minnesota Correctional Facility - Oak Park Heights on Friday, May 3, 2019. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

Minnesota’s new corrections commissioner fuels hope on both sides of the bars

ST. PAUL — Paul Schnell let out a warm smile as he greeted a class full of some of Minnesota’s most dangerous men.

The new state corrections commissioner struck up candid conversations with several inmates during a visit to the maximum security prison in Oak Park Heights earlier this month. One asked for more educational and vocational classes like the one they were in, while another said he wished there were more psychology services to help him reflect on his actions.

Schnell listened for several minutes and assured the inmates that they were heard and he would look into their suggestions. The exchange gave a glimpse into the mind of Minnesota’s new corrections chief. A former police chief with a degree in social work, Schnell is committed to the well-being of the officers who guard state prisons and the inmates who reside in them.

“There sometimes has been a tendency … to say ‘OK, we’re going to punish people, punish people, punish people’ and lock them away and not consider collateral damage,” said state Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, a former corrections program director who chairs the House subcommittee on corrections. “I think (Schnell) has taken a more universal look at this, which I believe in the long run will make the state a much safer place.”

That view will be tested as Schnell leads the short-staffed agency through one of its most tumultuous periods.

Corrections officer Joseph Gomm was allegedly bludgeoned to death by an inmate at the Stillwater prison in July. Two months later, corrections officer Joe Parise died of a medical emergency after responding to an attack on another officer at the Oak Park Heights facility.

Their deaths marked a violent span in the state prison system. There were 120 convictions for assaults on corrections officers from July 2017 to July 2018, according to DOC data. Assaults more than doubled at the Stillwater prison and increased by about 74 percent at Oak Park Heights.

Leading an agency in grief

Schnell took over in January, but the hope that comes with a new administration did not close the wounds of the past year.

“You could feel it and hear it in the conversations,” Schnell said. “I know the impact that has on organizations. It’s deep and lasting.”

He was a public information officer at the St. Paul Police Department in 2005 when a fellow colleague, Sgt. Gerald Vick, was killed. Vick, 41, was working undercover when he was shot during a confrontation outside a tavern. His convicted killer is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.

Schnell spoke at Vick’s funeral. He remembers the emotions of it all “like it happened yesterday.”

In his new role, Schnell has pledged to honor the fallen and lift up those who were left behind. He often makes impromptu visits to state prisons on weekends, which he said surprises employees and inmates alike. Many tell him they have never spoken to the commissioner before.

Oak Park Heights corrections officer Scott Roemer, who was a close friend of Parise, said Schnell has made a “wonderful impression” on officers.

A public-spirited path

Schnell never planned to be Minnesota’s corrections commissioner.

As a teenager he wanted to be a Catholic priest.

He was raised in the tiny farm town of St. Nazianz, Wis. The priesthood, he thought, could be a way to help people.

That path would not stick — he met his wife and they had four kids — but his desire to help others drove him to get a degree in social work from the University of St. Thomas.

Schnell’s first job in corrections came right out of college. He landed an internship at a halfway house in St. Paul. His career wound up taking a lengthy turn toward law enforcement, starting as a deputy in Carver County and then a 12-year stint with the St. Paul Police Department.

His work in St. Paul left a lasting impact. Schnell pioneered a Spanish language program that helped officers communicate with the city’s Hispanic population. He not only developed the program but secured the grant funding and instructors. The department named him Officer of the Year in 2002.

Schnell went on to be the police chief in Hastings, Maplewood and Inver Grove Heights before Gov. Tim Walz named him corrections commissioner.

Champions for change

The top item on Schnell’s agenda is to address urgent security needs. That starts with hiring more corrections officers and re-evaluating a solitary confinement policy some have blamed for the spike in assaults.

The agency employs 1,959 corrections officers but needs 170 more to be fully staffed. The DOC has enough money to hire 50 more and has ramped up its recruiting efforts to bring them on board.

Agency officials have asked the state for a funding bump so they can hire another 125 officers. Schnell has laid out these needs at the Capitol on numerous occasions over the past four months. He will find out how closely lawmakers listened as they put a state budget together in the coming days.