Stillwater Prison at Bayport.jpg

The Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater, located in Bayport. 

A recent report that looked at Minnesota’s Department of Corrections found several limitation to provide a safe environment for officers, staff and prisoners in the state’s prison system. These concerns were found to hit particular hard at the Stillwater Prison, located in Bayport, and the maximum security prison in Oak Park Heights. The report completed by the Office of the Legislative Auditor was presented to a joint hearing of the public safety and criminal justice reform and the corrections committees in St. Paul on Jan. 26, and showed a culture of bullying and harassment between staff members, short staffing that lead to safety concerns as officers were required to work overtime in stressful conditions, and an aging infrastructure that is unsafe for staff and prisoners alike.

In April 2019, the Legislative Auditor Commission directed the Officer of the Legislative Auditor to evaluate safety in the states correctional facilities in response to the deaths of two officers in 2018, Officer Joseph Gomm died on July 18 at the Stillwater facility following an assault by a prisoner; and on September 24, Officer Joseph Parise fell ill and died in the aftermath of responding to an assault on a staff person at Oak Park Heights.

“When you start digging into the data on violent incidents, you find that the data is poor,” David Kirchner of the Office of the Legislative Auditor Program Evaluation Division told lawmakers. “In the Department of Corrections (DOC) biennial because it does not include flights between prisoners, it only includes convictions for assault and those a two different things .. There are three times as many individuals that had disciplinary convictions for fights as there are convictions for assaults.”

The report found that violence between prisoners is far more common than violence against staff. However, prisoner assaults on staff increased dramatically during calendar year 2018, driven by sharp increases at Level 4 and Level 5 prisons. Convictions in DOC’s internal discipline system for assaults on staff increased from 112 in 2017 to 149 in 2018, before dropping again in 2019. Worker’s compensation claims for prison staff due to conflicts with prisoners also rose steeply and then fell.

Prison administrators have not done enough to address sexual offenses by prisoners against staff, the report said. In some state prisons, female staff endure repeated sexual offenses by some male prisoners, who catcall, verbally threaten them with sexual assault or expose themselves in front of them. Female staff said some supervisors and coworkers expect them to tolerate this behavior, and that prisoners frequently receive no disciplinary consequences.

“We do believe that the Department of Correction should do more to support its staff when they encounter these types of incidents,” Kirchner said.

High turnover rates have led several prisons to fall below their budgetary allocations of correctional officers, the report found. In 2019, Stillwater averaged a shortage of 25 officers under its allocated 314 correctional officers. Although DOC recruited a similar number of new officers in 2019 as it had in previous years, those staff were not enough to fill the increased vacancies.

According to DOC human resources reports, after averaging an annual turnover rate of 11.2 percent among all staff in fiscal years 2014 through 2018, Oak Park Heights lost 17.7 percent of it staff in 2019.

To address these shortages, the report found that DOC almost quadrupled its use of overtime for corrections officers between 2013 and 2019. When prisons lack enough volunteers to work overtime shifts, prison administrators often require staff to work overtime. However, the DOC does not track how often it forces officers to work overtime.

“We estimated that roughly 15 to 20 percent of instances when officers worked overtime in the last year were forced,” the report states.

All prisons have used overtime work to operate, but some use much more than others. At Oak Park Heights, Shakopee and Stillwater, approximately 10 percent of the total hours worked in 2019 were overtime hours.

Seniority heavily influences who works overtime hours. Officers with the most seniority have the first opportunity to volunteer for available overtime hours, regardless of how many hours they have worked recently. But if prison administrators force officers to work overtime, they contractually must force those with the least seniority first.

“Some people get forced every five days, those are the ones with little time in. Newer staff are getting burnt out and they are not staying,” said a corrections officer at Oak Park Heights in the report. “When you have staff getting one day off in a week they [have] fatigue [and overlook] things like a missing razor.”

Large majorities of DOC staff surveyed in the report said that staffing shortages and heavy overtime usage create safety challenges for staff and prisoners. For example, staff may not have enough time to perform routine security tasks or may need to work alone or in small numbers in settings with many prisoners. Staff tired from working excessive overtime may be less alert, less responsive in emergency situations, or more short-tempered.

Prison administrators and staff stated in the report that short-staffing also leads prisons to frequently suspend prisoner activities such as therapy, employment, education and recreation — programs that have been found to reduce violence and misbehavior by prisoners. Again, the report found the DOC does not track how often its prisons suspend prisoner activities.

In interviews, prisoners commented that violence is more likely when prisons frequently confine them to their cells because there are no stress-relief activities. Staff and prisoners both told auditors that confinement to cells increases prisoners’ irritability, stating that when prisoners confined for long periods are finally given out-of-cell time, pent-up conflicts among prisoners are more likely to lead to violence.

In interviews, prison staff recounted instances in which they believed prison administrators ran programs even though staffing levels were too low to do so safely. Some prison staff blame the death of Stillwater Officer Joseph Gomm on a decision to keep prisoners working in an industrial program even though a staffing absence meant that only two staff members would be present to supervise prisoners in two large workshops. When Officer Gomm was assaulted by a prisoner, he was unable to call for assistance, and no other staff person was present to radio for help. Help was called only after another prisoner went to the neighboring workshop and alerted the staff member there.

In interviews, several prisoners also suggested that prisons would be safer if there were more officers. When the auditors asked one group of prisoners what changes could be made to increase safety at the prison, the report states that one prisoner immediately responded “you can’t go wrong with more staff.” He commented that staff are so overworked that they allow prisoners to commit infractions without consequences, and that tightening discipline would make the prison safer.

During interviews at Level 4 and Level 5 prisons, the report stated a few officers noted that the visit by the auditors itself strained staffing resources. One officer commented that in order for her to participate in the interview, she had been replaced in a restrictive housing unit by a trainee officer who had not yet been issued chemical irritant for controlling prisoners when needed. She said that assigning an officer with limited experience and insufficient equipment to work in that environment “should never happen.” A second officer in the interview session added that such substitutions were commonplace because of staffing shortages.

Although not a majority, the report found that a disturbingly large number of staff described unprofessional work relationships as an ongoing problem in DOC prisons. Overall, 32% of staff responding to our survey said that bullying and harassment were problems in the prisons where they worked. The highest level of reported staff-on-staff bullying and harassment was at Oak Park Heights, with over 50 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing.

“There’s no “zero tolerance” here. We tolerate everything in this department, from insubordination to harassment to bullying,” said one lieutenant in Stillwater. “You‘ve got to worry about your coworkers more than you have to worry about your safety from the inmates, and that’s unfortunate.”

Aging facilities

The report examined the prisons at St. Cloud and Stillwater — both built over 100 years ago — and found both to have design features that are outdated and unsafe.

The residential units in these prisons present security challenges, such as the danger of falling or being pushed over railings from several stories in the air. The layout of these residential units also makes it difficult for staff to monitor prisoners. Some key infrastructure elements, such as door locking mechanisms, are no longer manufactured and DOC must fabricate replacement parts as needed.

“DOC should develop and present to the Legislature a long-term plan for rehabilitating or replacing the living units at the St. Cloud and Stillwater prisons,” said Kirchner. “We know that is going to be a difficult conversation because it is a lot of money and a lot of organizational challenges, but we think it is a conversation that it’s time to start having.”

Making physical changes to either St. Cloud or Stillwater is complicated by the fact that both prisons are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Under state law, DOC must consult with the State Historic Preservation Office before altering structures at either location.

The report is prompting the department to look at changes in its operations.

“From the very first meeting with the audit team, we pleaded our full cooperation,” said DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell at the committee meeting. In response to the report, Schnell told lawmakers that the department plans to create working groups around each of the recommendations offered in the report as well as a comprehensive agency strategic plan.

Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com

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