Audit: Staff shortages, failure to track assaults add to danger in Minn. prisons

Report calls for new strategies for reducing sexual harassment by inmates against female staff

By Andy Mannix
Star Tribune

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Staff shortages in Minnesota prisons are driving a glut in overtime hours for correctional officers, making the facilities more dangerous, while corrections officials have failed to properly track assaults — and they don’t know just how unsafe their facilities are for prisoners and staff.

These are among the findings in a scathing new report from the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor on security in the state’s 11 prisons, which will be presented to lawmakers Wednesday afternoon.

In a response letter, Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said “we concur in whole” with the audit’s results, and that he’s become aware since taking the position in January 2019 of “the deeply troubling realities pertaining to the safety of our facilities.”

The audit found overtime has quadrupled among correction officers since 2013. Staffing shortages have cut out key programming designed to help rehabilitate inmates, including therapy, education, jobs and recreational activities, leading to more tension in the facilities.

Supervisors at the prison have ignored or downplayed sexual harassment by inmates against female staff, such as catcalling and masturbating, according to the report. One-in-three workers said bullying is a persistent problem among staff.

Unlike county jails, the prisons have little oversight from outside state agencies, the auditor found. And some of the oldest facilities, such as in Stillwater and St. Cloud, still have outdated features that make them less safe. For instance, railings in residential areas leave prisoners and staff at risk of falling or being pushed from several stories in the air.

The report makes recommendations for the Department of Corrections, including transforming its data collection process to better track about violent events, staffing shortages, overtime usage and prisoner discipline, and then to use that data to improve safety.

The Legislature should provide better oversight of the prisons, according to the audit. The department should hire more correctional officers and create new strategies for reducing overall bullying and sexual offenses toward women staff. And the prison’s leadership should develop a long-term plan to rehabilitate or replace archaic housing features.

“We have already begun implementing a number of the recommendations highlighted in your report,” wrote Schnell, and “your comprehensive look back at the safety of our state’s correctional facilities confirms, supports, and underscores the significance of the work ahead of us.”


©2020 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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