Minnesota prisons face ‘critical time' as assaults on staff spike

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Minnesota’s new prisons chief told lawmakers Wednesday that the system faces a crucial phase amid a spike in assaults, including the deaths of two corrections officers.

“This is a critical time,” said Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, a veteran law enforcement officer. “It’s something that I understand through a different but connected experience, losing a colleague in the line of duty.”

Schnell, who took over the agency in early January, said he was implementing security improvements at the 11 state-run facilities. Meanwhile, some House Democrats said a staffing shortage was the biggest contributing factor and called for a hiring spree to quell the violence.

There were 120 assaults on staff during the year that ended in June 2018, nearly double the 63 attacks over the same period two years earlier, corrections officials said Wednesday during a joint meeting of the House Public Safety and Corrections committees. Over this time, assaults causing injuries more than tripled, from nine to 30.

In the most recent six-month period from July-December 2018, assaults causing injury to staffers remain at an elevated level, data from the Corrections department indicate.

Two corrections officers, Joseph Gomm and Joseph Parise, died at prisons in 2018. An inmate at the Stillwater lockup attacked Gomm with a prison-issued hammer and homemade knives, while Parise had a medical emergency in the Oak Park Heights prison after responding to an inmate attacking a fellow officer. Both deaths have been ruled homicides.

Schnell and lawmakers said there was a staffing shortage at Minnesota’s prisons, even as the overall prison population declined last year.

State Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, said he soon plans to formally introduce a bill that calls for the hiring of additional corrections officers at every state prison. The legislation will be named in Gomm’s honor, said Considine, who chairs the House Corrections committee.

Considine and state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, declined to say how many new officers would be hired under the bill because the state and its labor unions were still negotiating. Considine said there would be “a lot” of new hires.

“We are looking at increasing the number of officers for the safety of the residents and the staff,” he said. “We’ve had some horrendous incidents and those need to come to a screeching halt.”

Considine said the maximum security prison at Oak Park Heights has cancelled some family visitation periods because of a lack of staff. Some workers have been forced to work overtime because of the staff shortage, he said.

Lawmakers are scheduled to tour the Stillwater prison on Friday with Schnell and union representatives.

Schnell said his agency is currently adding security cameras, reducing the number of double-bunked cells, and developing a better system for controlling tools – like the prison-issued hammer used to attack Gomm – that are a necessary part of prisons’ job-training programs for inmates.

“There is not a single fix to this,” he said. “We know we need to bring up our staffing. That becomes essential.”