Stillwater Corrections officers take a stand to demand safer conditions

Corrections officers inside the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater - where a colleague was killed two months ago - are refusing to work in the area where Joseph Gomm was attacked.

The officers took a stand today and won't return until the Department of Corrections meets their demands for increased safety.

The DOC recently lifted the lockdown on the prison and, on Wednesday, they wanted to open up the industry building where Joseph Gomm was beaten to death by an inmate. However, officers say unless they're with a partner, there's no chance that's happening.

“Our goal is just to go home and be with our families,” said Gregg Biedler. 

Biedler told Fox 9 this was his focus every night he worked at the Stillwater prison before his recent retirement.

He remains close friends with many of the current officers there as they all continue to struggle with the death of their beloved colleague Gomm.

“To see some of the things my friends are going through, it’s tough. I talk with their spouses and they say, 'I wish I could have my old husband back,' but because of the trauma they’re going through, some of them were first responders when they found Joe. It’s difficult,” Biedler said.

Administrators attempted to open the industry building back up Wednesday, the very same building where Gomm was killed.  

The plan was to allow 17 inmates to fold and package balloons, but staff members refused to go inside citing unsafe conditions.

Tim Henderson, the associate director for the union representing the employees, says the officers want to work with a partner and make sure the camera system is updated.

“Programming is important, but security is the most important aspect of running a correctional facility and the old ideology of robbing Peter to pay Paul to get everything has led to an increase in staff assaults,” Henderson said.

The DOC says additional officers were working in other parts of the prison Wednesday.

In a statement to Fox 9, a spokeswoman for the department says in part, “The Minnesota Department of Corrections has been, and will remain, in discussions with our staff and labor leaders to implement all possible and necessary safety measures to create a safe and secure work environment for all our officers, staff, and inmates."

Biedler is afraid another corrections officer will lose his or her life if immediate action isn't taken to increase security within the prison walls.

“This isn’t Club Med, this is prison. So if you have to modify it and they don’t get their recreation, so be it,” Biedler said.

It's still unclear what tomorrow holds for the staff within Stillwater prison. The DOC says they have repeatedly asked the legislature for more funding to hire 150 more officers but have been denied.

The commissioner of the DOC was unavailable to answer questions Wednesday, but the DOC released the following statement: 

Today, following weeks of preparation and consultation with our employees to ensure the highest standards of safety, we finalized our preparations to resume operations of a reconfigured industry area in our Stillwater prison. Work was scheduled to resume in that newly reconfigured area with a low-risk industry activity, in which 17 inmates would fold and package lightweight materials. Every effort has been undertaken to ensure the workplace setting for this low-risk task is safe for our officers, staff, and inmates — their safety is, and always will be, our highest priority.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections has been, and will remain in discussions with our staff and labor leaders to implement all possible and necessary safety measures to create a safe and secure work environment for all our officers, staff, and inmates. Their concerns and input will continue to be of paramount importance as we continue our preparations to reopen this industry area and resume low-risk industry activity. The safety of our prison facilities depends on the hard work and dedication of our corrections officers. We share our officers’ strong desire to increase  staffing levels. Over the last eight years, the Department has requested that the Legislature fund an additional 150 corrections officers. Unfortunately, those requests were not funded. We will continue to advocate strongly for the funding necessary to hire those additional staff.