After deadly year in state prisons, new Dept. of Corrections Commissioner shares his vision

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A new commissioner is taking over the Minnesota Department of Corrections, following a tumultuous and deadly year for corrections officers inside state prisons.

For the first time in over a year, FOX 9 got rare access behind the scenes of the Stillwater Correctional Facility.

Groups of inmates walk down the long hall inside the Stillwater Correctional Facility as guards and K-9s watch them march into the dining room for lunch.

Food is prepared by fellow offenders and served in an assembly line before inmates sit together to eat. Corrections officers overseeing them say for the most part everyone sits together and gets along.

Across the prison, it's recreation time. Some wait in line to use a computer, while others sign up to borrow library books. All of it is supervised under the watchful eyes of the guards.

“They come to work every day and deal with some really challenging situations and some challenging people, and I really have a deep appreciation for what they do,” said Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.

Schnell is now on his second day in his new role as commissioner. He's had a successful career in law enforcement, most recently as police chief in Inver Grove Heights. It's a challenging new assignment to oversee a department in desperate need of change.

“There’s no doubt I feel pressure,” said Schnell. “I want the correctional officers and the people who work in our facilities and their families to know that we care and recognize the very real challenges that they face.”

2018 was a tragic year for correction officers in Minnesota as guards were increasingly under attack and even killed. An inmate brutally murdered Officer Joseph Gomm inside Stillwater prison in July inside an industry building that is no longer used. Then in September at the Oak Park Heights prison, Officer Joe Parise died after responding to help a fellow staff member, who was being assaulted by an inmate.

The deaths still weigh heavily on their colleagues who wear bracelets and pins to honor their service. Schnell will be tasked making sure those workers feel safe coming to work each day.

“I think we make investments and we have been and those investments involve the physical security kinds of things - cameras, maximize our staffing when the needs are greatest when we’re moving people from different activities,” said Schnell.

He says he's also committed to the rehabilitation of inmates - a crucial component of prisons to keep incarceration rates down.

“95 percent of the people who are in Minnesota corrections facilities are coming back to communities across Minnesota,” said Schnell. “It’s contrary to our interests to send them out without making them better than they were when they came in.”

Part of Schnell’s new visions for the department include being more transparent than ever while he works to implement changes that benefit both the staff and the inmates.