Stillwater prison conditions: DOC orders more extensive water testing

The commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections has ordered "additional and more comprehensive" water testing be done at the Stillwater prison to confirm the water is safe for drinking.

On Sunday, Sept. 3 more than 100 inmates refused to return to their cells to protest what they say is brown water in their cells and a lack of air conditioning in the prison during the height of the latest heat wave. Inmates reported that they were using pieces of cloth to filter sediments from the water in the cells.

DOC says monthly and yearly water tests from a third-party lab and from the Minnesota Department of Health have shown no health risk from the water at the Stillwater prison. Those water tests "have consistently met or exceeded federal and state water quality requirements," according to DOC.

DOC spokesperson Andy Skoogman said the new round of water testing, which will take place this week, will also determine the specific levels and types of sediments, such as iron, rust and manganese, in the prison’s water supply. Those tests will include samples from cell faucets. MCF-Stillwater gets its water from a well.  

"We recognize there are sediments in the well water which can at times affect clarity with a reddish-brown tint," said a statement from Skoogman. "It’s important to point out that although the water may be unclear, it has not been deemed unsafe through the routine third party water testing."

DOC has started contracting with a consultant to analyze its water filtration methods and implement a long-term filtration strategy.

Reports from inmates

The DOC blamed "dissatisfaction" among inmates over "modified cell release schedules over the holiday weekend" for the Labor Day weekend incident. Activists however claimed a "lack of access to clean water" and the hot weather drove the emergency situation. DOC officials say those claims are false.

An inmate at Stillwater Correctional Facility painted a grim picture during a recorded phone call last Sunday.

"It's supposed to be a record week of heat and they got us locked in cells. No air conditioning, no water, no showers, no nothing," he said.

The inmate reports they have been mostly locked in their cells for the past few months. 

"It got to a point now where we had to take a peaceful protest and take a stand for our rights and say, 'Listen, we ain't taking no more.'"

"They’ve been stuck inside their cells for two to three days where it's so hot they’re reporting the walls are starting to sweat," said Marvina Haynes with Minnesota Wrongfully Convicted Judicial Reform. "It's inhumane."

Haynes said she communicated with inmates last Sunday who said in addition to the lack of air conditioning, the prison has continually reduced the time they’re allowed to be outside of their cells the last several months which means less time for showers, phone calls, and laundry.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said most of the inmates' complaints were due to a staffing crisis.

‘The conditions are horrible’

On Friday. advocates and loved ones of Stillwater inmate delivered a list of demands to state offices.

They are asking the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to investigate what they call human rights abuses within DOC. 

"The conditions are horrible. When people say ‘do the crime, do the time,’ that doesn't include being treated like an animal," said community organizer Toussaint Morrison.

The spouses of some inmates also fear the prison is punishing their loved ones for participating in a peaceful protest.

"Me and his son, we speak to him every day. We haven't been able to hear from him. We are very concerned. We hope we hear from him today. We want to know that he's OK," said the wife of one of the inmates, Doerminda Assani.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections says the section of the prison where the protest took place, B East, is still on lockdown while the rest of the units are up and running with programming.

DOC officials say 120 inmates who took part in the protest face discipline of up to 30 days of in-house segregation in their cells, with limited access to showers, recreation and phone time. Seven other inmates considered to be the protest organizers are in administrative segregation in another part of the prison.

The DOC says it is bringing in additional employees from across the system to help alleviate some of the staffing challenges at Stillwater.