OAK PARK HEIGHTS, Minn. (FOX 9) - It’s not often that reporters and photographers are invited inside Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility near Stillwater. It is Minnesota’s only maximum security prison and is currently home to 328 inmates.
But last month, Oak Park Heights closed one of its 9 confinement units because they simply don’t have enough corrections officers. Now, the Department of Corrections is aggressively recruiting more. And they know it can be intimidating.
"Well, I’m not going to lie to them, it is stressful and tough," said Lt. Tyler Grandstrand. "It’s a different type of work."
Grandstrand came to work at Oak Park Heights 17 years ago with the idea he’d put in a year and move on. But he said a combination of enjoying the job, great benefits and a pension, and making some very close friends kept him. And he doesn’t plan to leave.
"It’s awesome, there’s some great people here. When I got married in 2010, four of my five groomsmen were officers here," he said.
"Thought it would be a one-year plan and maybe try something different. But I will retire from this job."
In December, the Department of Corrections began offering a $5000 new hire bonus across all ten of their prisons in a range of jobs. But the need persists.
So now, they’ve upped the offer to $10,000, specifically for corrections officers and only for the prisons in Oak Park Heights, Stillwater and Rush City.
It’s available to new hires that go through training in September and October, and like the initial bonus, it pays out half after the first year of employment and half after the second.
The tour took us through much of the facility, including the maximum security wing where Derek Chauvin is serving his sentence. Considered a prison within a prison, this area features multiple layers of security including two sets of doors on each of the single inmate cells.
They stressed throughout that while there can be danger, that is not the norm.
"I do feel safe with solid staff right next to me," said Scott Roemer, another corrections officer leading the tour. "Which is why recruiting solid individuals to come and be correctional officers is paramount."
Roemer was a close friend of Joe Parise, the corrections officer killed by an inmate at Oak Park Heights in 2018. Acknowledging memories of that incident might scare people off, he said changes have been made, and it had a profound effect on everyone here.
"I need to watch after you, I need you to watch after me," said Roemer. "That’s where the real change comes from, it’s from the correctional officers,"
Emily Johnson, a fellow corrections officer added "If it’s not a good fit, that’s ok, but you give it the chance. And you might discover an entirely new passion for the workplace."