DFL lawmakers tour Stillwater prison, blame staff shortage for assaults

In a move that would’ve been unheard of in recent years, state corrections officials on Friday led a tour of Minnesota lawmakers and reporters through the Stillwater prison where a corrections officer was killed in 2018.

Afterward, five House Democrats blamed a recent spike in assaults on a staffing shortage and lack of state support. They pledged to introduce a bill named for that officer, Joseph Gomm, that will dramatically increase staffing at Minnesota’s prisons.

“Corrections has been ignored for 25 years,” said state Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato. “I think people forget about prisons. They put the offenders away, that’s done, you can forget about it. And you can’t.”

From 2016 through 2018, assaults on staff in prisons doubled, according to data provided by the state Corrections department. Assaults that resulted in injuries tripled over the same period. A second corrections officer, Joseph Parise, died of a medical emergency after responding to an inmate attacking a fellow officer at the Oak Park Heights prison in September.

Corrections officials have begun to make some changes to address security. They’ve cut in half the number of double-bunked cells at Stillwater from 120 to 60. The double-bunked cells are the same size as single-bunked cells, which make up most of the facility.

The Stillwater prison has also shut down its welding program and is reworking other inmate job-training programs that involve tools like the one used to attack Gomm.

“It’s security and safety first. The tools that we use out there, all of that has to be evaluated to see what’s safe,” Marcie Koetke, the prison’s education director, told lawmakers during the tour.

Under the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton, prisons were routinely off-limits to lawmakers and the media. Gov. Tim Walz has pledged transparency as he seeks to turn around the Corrections department.

His commissioner, Paul Schnell, attended part of the tour before leaving for a cabinet meeting. The prison’s associate warden and sergeant led the visit, fielding questions from the visitors.

Prison officials led lawmakers past cell blocks and into the segregation unit, where inmates who’ve gotten into fights are taken. They also saw a library and the prison’s indoor gym. The prison’s recreation facility spans two levels, but officials must occasionally close one of the levels when they are short-staffed, they said.

Warden Eddie Miles said his facility was down 30 employees from what is considered full staffing. Additional staff is needed on top of that, he said.

Walz said he supported the push for more staffing if corrections officers thought it was needed.

“My responsibility as governor is to protect those corrections officers in there,” Walz told reporters Friday in St. Paul. “The deaths of Joseph Parise and Joseph Gomm cannot happen again. We need to make sure inmates are secured the way they are and the public is secured.”

Walz said he would seek broader changes through his state budget to reduce the number of people going to prison.

Considine and state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said they would introduce their staffing bill within one or two weeks. They declined to say how many new staff members the legislation would call for.

“Having seen what a lack of commitment from the Legislature gets us, it’s a problem,” said state Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud.