Corrections officer union demands more money, staff for Minnesota facilities

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Correctional officers from across Minnesota descended on the Capitol Wednesday demanding more staffing and safer prison conditions in the wake of their colleague’s death.

Earlier this month Officer Joseph Gomm was killed by an inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) said Gomm’s death will “not be in vain.”

“Today, we are demanding changes to staffing levels and inmate discipline to prevent any other correctional deaths in our prisons,” said the AFSCME Council 5 Correctional Committee in a letter read at a news conference by President John Hillyard. “To do anything less would dishonor Joe’s memory. One death is too many.”

The union made three specific demands of lawmakers Wednesday, the most important of which was to address staffing issues.

The demand called for a “clean, bipartisan, stand-alone bill” to address staffing issues in Minnesota’s prison system. The union said staffing shortages are a “big problem” and the group’s “number one issue.”

At Stillwater, the union says, there are blocks with four officers monitoring 280 inmates. At Moose Lake, the numbers are similarly worrisome, as 400 inmates can be in the yard at one time with only two staff members.

By filling vacant positions, returning out-of-class officers back to corrections, closing industrial shops when prisons are short-staffed and stopping forced overtime, the union outlined some ways to address the staffing problem.

“Those are stop-gap solutions,” Hillyard read. “More funding is the only answer.”

In a second demand, the union asked to reinstate old discipline guidelines to help combat the growing number of assaults.

Third, the union called for cameras in the industry areas of the prisons.

“We have been going to the Legislature every year for a decade now, every single week the Legislature is in session, asking for more correctional officers,” said the union in its demand letter. “We are not asking for more correctional officers and staffing any more. We are demanding it.”

The officers made it clear that they will start taking workplace actions if demands for more staffing and safer prisons aren’t met, but the union president absolutely ruled out a strike, saying they are essential state workers and won’t strike.

The Department of Corrections released a statement in response to the AFSCME's demands Wednesday: 

The Department of Corrections greatly appreciates AFSCME’s desire to work together on these important issues, and we thank the honorable corrections officers who stood up today. We agree we are in need of many more corrections officers in our facilities statewide. Our staffing analysis indicates we need at least 150 more officers, and over the years we have repeatedly asked the Legislature for these funds. Our current discussions with legislators reveal that they support our officers and that this will be an important discussion in the upcoming session. We support the union’s demand for increased funding for corrections officers. We look forward to partnering with the union, Department staff, and the legislature to improve the safety of our staff, our facilities and all Minnesotans. 

Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge) also released a statement Wednesday as the Chair of the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. 

First and foremost, I want to reiterate my sincere condolences to the family, friends, and co-workers who are grieving the loss of Officer Gomm. I want our Corrections Officers to know we are listening, and want to do what we can to protect those who stand guard at our prisons. We continue to await the completion of the investigation into Officer Gomm's death—once we receive that report, we are planning to hold public committee hearings with the Senate to discuss how we can move forward.

Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) echoed Johnson's request to wait until the Gomm investigation concludes, but said the Department of Corrections has received an 18 percent increase in funding over the past four years. 

"As a former correctional officer, I can say with authority that it's a dangerous job," Limmer said in a statement.