Minnesota lawmakers hear calls for more staff during first-ever hearing inside state prison
ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers heard a plea for more corrections officers during the first-ever hearing inside a state prison on Wednesday, Feb. 6.
Halting a spike in assaults on corrections officers was the focus of the meeting, which was held inside the Stillwater prison. The House corrections subcommittee heard from the union that represents corrections officers, the director of educational programming and the new head of the Department of Corrections. All said that more officers are needed.
Sgt. John Hillyard, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local president for the Stillwater prison, told lawmakers that at least 300 more officers are needed to sufficiently staff state facilities.
“It is important that we do not have officers by themselves,” Hillyard said. “Joe (Gomm) was by himself.”
Corrections officer Joseph Gomm was allegedly bludgeoned to death by an inmate at the Stillwater prison in July 2018. Two months later, Oak Park Heights corrections officer Joe Parise died of a medical emergency after responding to an attack on a fellow officer.
Their deaths marked a violent period in the state prison system.
There were 120 convictions for assaults on corrections officers from July 2017 to July 2018, according to the state Department of Corrections. Assaults on corrections officers more than doubled at the Stillwater prison and increased by about 74 percent at Oak Park Heights.
Taking aim at a policy change
Lawmakers asked the union representatives about their thoughts on recent changes to solitary confinement rules; offenders can spend less time in isolation under a new policy called the “90-day Step-Down.”
Hillyard did not hold back.
“Since this has been implemented, our assaults have went up tremendously,” he said, noting that there were two assaults at the Stillwater facility in the past few days. “It has miserably failed, and my officers are the ones that have paid the price for the failures…”
How staff shortage impacts inmates
Ruth Stadheim, the DOC’s director of career technical education, said that 2,400 inmates are enrolled in educational training “on any given day.” Inmates learn skills that help them reintegrate into society upon release.
That programming has been reduced because of the staffing shortage.
“It takes a village to rehabilitate people. And so the security staffing, the program staffing … we all play (a) role,” Stadheim said.
A staffing boost could also help reduce the number of inmate-on-inmate assaults, said DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell.
There were 379 convictions for assaults on inmates in fiscal year 2018, according to the DOC, though that number is lower than previous years.
“The more we can create a stable climate, the more … that our staff are engaged with and connecting with the people who live in our correctional facilities, the better we are able to help mitigate, mediate and address some of these problems,” Schnell said.
Legislative proposals coming
State Rep. John “Jack” Considine, DFL-Mankato, said he will soon introduce the “Joseph Gomm bill” to provide funding for more corrections officers. He did not say how much money would be proposed.
“Your job should not come with a death sentence,” said Considine, who chairs the corrections subcommittee. “We want the custody staff to go home safely.”
The DOC requested state funding for 187 more officers last year but did not receive any, according to spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald.