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Corrections officials, inmates say Minn. prison conditions a matter of public safety

A 2020 evaluation report by the state found that “several conditions at the state prisons reduce safety, including persistent staffing shortages, heavy overtime use, suspensions of prisoner activities, unprofessional workplace relationships, limited oversight and outdated infrastructure”

Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater

An inmate looks out from a cell at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater in Bayport, Minnesota, on Feb. 9, 2024. A 2020 evaluation report by the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor found that “several conditions at the state prisons reduce safety, including persistent staffing shortages, heavy overtime use, suspensions of prisoner activities, unprofessional workplace relationships, limited oversight and outdated infrastructure.” (John Autey/Pioneer Press/TNS)

John Autey/TNS

By Caleb Hensin
Pioneer Press

BAYPORT, Minn. — Brown water, scorching summer heat with no air conditioning, one visitation day per week. Those incarcerated in Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater didn’t expect prison life would be easy living, but no one told them it would be like this.

“We filtered the water with socks,” former Stillwater inmate Jesse Curry said. “It was medieval.”

Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater was the first prison established in the state in 1853. Its current, second facility in Bayport opened in 1914. The building has no central air, and in September, roughly 100 inmates protested conditions with a sit-in, sending the prison into lockdown for over a day. The state departments of Corrections and Health later launched an investigation into the water quality at the prison and promised to develop a water management plan that would include hiring outside plumbers.

Kent Jones, a Stillwater inmate of over 24 years, said a reduction in visitation days to just one a week began out of COVID-19 concerns but have not returned to normal since then. Even at one day a week, he said cancellations happen often.

“The DOC talk about the importance of family … but they are not family-friendly,” said Jones, who was convicted of a 1992 rape and murder in Sherburne County.

Prison conditions and family visits are about more than just inmate comfort. It’s about public safety.

A 2011 Department of Corrections study found that visitations from friends and family helped reduce the rate of prisoner recidivism by at least 13%. The more often prisoners were visited, the less likely they were to reoffend within five years of release. Other studies have found that the condition of prisons have an effect on recidivism.

Less reconviction means a smaller burden on the taxpayer. The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, using data from 41 states, found in 2021 that supervision violations and revocations cost taxpayers nationwide over $8 billion. Recidivism cost Minnesotans specifically over $91 million.

More inmates, fewer staff

The source of the problems go back further than last summer’s protest. The Stillwater prison’s infrastructure has been exacerbated by overpopulation and understaffing.

From 2018 to the start of 2022, the state Department of Corrections lost over 400 staff, according to data from the prison system.

While these drops were offset by prison population decreases during the pandemic, staffing continued to decline when the prison population rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Data from the Department of Corrections project the prison population will continue to rise to 9,057 by 2025; the department currently is funded for fewer than 8,000.

A 2020 evaluation report by the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor found that “several conditions at the state prisons reduce safety, including persistent staffing shortages, heavy overtime use, suspensions of prisoner activities, unprofessional workplace relationships, limited oversight and outdated infrastructure.”

That report surveyed prison staff, and over half said that they did not believe the prison had enough resources to provide helpful programming to prisoners. The report also found that staff turnover is over 11% since 2019, and that Stillwater turnover specifically jumped to 15% in 2019, nearly 5 percentage points higher than the previous five years.

These staffing issues are cited by inmates, former staff and Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who said staff retention is at the heart of many of the problems incarcerated people experience.

“Nothing happens at a prison without staffing, security staffing in particular, so this becomes one of the driving factors,” Schnell said.

Jones complained about health concerns inside Stillwater prison and said he had difficulties getting staff to take his issues seriously. Jones specifically cited a persistent rash or acne he has had for years.

Curry, who was convicted of first-degree sexual misconduct, had been incarcerated at Stillwater since 1993. He also complained of issues regarding health treatment. During his incarceration, he developed intestinal cancer, which he said he had immense difficulty receiving treatment for due to prison staff being unwilling to facilitate travel to outside hospitals that would have the resources to treat him.

Curry also suffers from other health issues including diabetes and a weak heart.

“I have doctor’s notes saying that I need exercise to get my heart going,” Curry said. “But I was barely let outside.”

Jones said that inmates who participated in a sit-in protest about discolored drinking water at the prison were denied showers for a week or more, as well as meals.

“They use hygiene as a weapon against us,” Jones said.

Employment and education opportunities inside prison are slim, too. Stillwater used to have more programming for education and employment in trades and industry, but after an inmate used a hammer to murder Stillwater corrections officer Joseph Gomm in a metal shop in 2018, that programming went away and never returned. Now Jones folds balloons for $3 an hour, a skill that would not transfer well to outside employment upon his potential release in 2030.

“I’m not anti-DOC or anti-guard by any means,” Jones said, “but the treatment is simply not fair.”

Former staff say action needed

Antonio Espinosa worked as a corrections officer at Stillwater for nearly two decades. Gomm was his friend. Espinosa said the treatment of prisoners in response to incidents like Gomm’s murder is often unfair.

“Everyone had to pay for one person’s actions,” Espinosa said, referring to how education in trades and employment in industry jobs disappeared after Gomm’s murder.

Those jobs still have not returned or been replaced in any significant way, according to Espinosa, who has been recognized for his “Art From the Inside” exhibits of inmate artwork.

Gomm’s murder was mentioned in the 2020 evaluation report, which said the DOC tracks whether prisoners are assigned to programming or not, but this tracking does not change based on whether that programming is actually available: “For example, prison administrators told us that the Stillwater facility stopped offering programming for weeks following the death of Officer Joseph Gomm in July 2018. However, in August 2018, Stillwater’s idleness rate was similar to that in months prior, and over half of the facility’s prisoners were still ‘assigned’ to some program.”

Espinosa said that not only was Gomm’s murder a blow to morale for prisoners who lost those opportunities as a consequence, it was also a blow to staff, many of whom Espinosa noted became more withdrawn at work. Some quit entirely.

Staff retention has always been difficult. Espinosa knows more than anyone that it’s a difficult job that requires a certain kind of personality: “You think that just because you have a uniform and some power, you can treat these people (prisoners) however you want; that’s not going to work.”

Corrections officers often have to deal with interpersonal issues that go far beyond the physical confrontations seen in movies. Espinosa said that a guard has to wear “a lot of hats” and has to be empathetic.

“One moment, you’re security. One moment, you’re a therapist. One moment, you’re a pastor for these people,” Espinosa said. He believes that many of the people who end up in prison are “broken,” or “hurt” and are in need of healing.

“I had to take a step backwards and see how I could help the system and help people,” Espinosa said, and encouraged people outside of prisons to involve themselves by talking to representatives and getting involved with activist work. “We can’t forget these people; we can’t leave them behind.”

Newer prisons, too

Stillwater isn’t the only prison in the state facing these issues. Brandon Bacchus, who is out of prison under the Intensive Supervised Release program after an assault conviction, was incarcerated at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Rush City.

A contrast to the state’s oldest prison, Rush City is its newest, constructed in 2000, but Bacchus’ complaints mirror many of those about Stillwater: inmates having to eat meals in cells instead of in a cafeteria, a lack of visitation days and only two days a week where he was allowed out for recreation.

“They only let us outside here and there,” he said. Bacchus particularly recalled a day where after being let out into the yard, he and other inmates were not let back inside for hours while it was raining.

Medical care was also an issue shared with Stillwater. Bacchus said he suffered from an intestinal infection during his time in Rush City and experienced cold sweats, vomiting and other symptoms of stomach-related sickness. He said it took months to see a doctor for the infection.

“I felt like I was in a third-world country,” Bacchus said.

Possible solutions

Schnell said creating new programming during the pandemic was difficult. Some prisoners were released during the pandemic to create more space for social distancing inside facilities. Courts started to work through a backload of cases as the pandemic eased, which caused the prison population to quickly rise again, at a rate that staffing could not keep up with.

An aging workforce and a lack of competitive pay and benefits also contribute to staffing shortages and poor staff retention, Schnell said.

Video chat access can help ease the lack of visitation days, though Schnell acknowledged that “it’s certainly not the same as in person.”

Schnell sees a solution for many prison issues in a bill that passed the state Legislature last year, which would reallocate current resources and funding within the Department of Corrections to foster individualized “case plans” and programming tailored to each prisoner.

The idea is that the better prisoners respond to programming, the sooner they can be released. Under current policy, such programs are usually implemented toward the end of a sentence, but under the Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act they instead will be implemented from the beginning. Most Minnesota prison inmates would be eligible to participate in this programming. Those who are serving life sentences or given indeterminate sentences would not be eligible.

“What we want to do is incentivize people to take advantage of and participate and maximize their involvement in evidence-based programming contact,” Schnell said. “We know that cognitive behavioral intervention, how people think, how they see themselves, how they define themselves … those types of things that we need to address, there’s a variety of ways to do that.”

His examples of programming that would address behaviors and help to reintroduce incarcerated people back into society included cognitive group therapy, substance abuse treatment, vocational programs, connections with family and leadership opportunities for prisoners who showed particular growth.

But for there to be programming, there needs to be the infrastructure for it. This includes not just the staffing issues, but the physical space itself. Stillwater is over a century old and Rush City, Schnell says, currently only has a portable classroom on its grounds for such programming.

“We address a crumbling facade or water … but second is one of the biggest priority projects that we want to be looking at, or at least exploring, is programming space at Rush City and some other facilities,” he said.

Reinvesting resources

A more tailored approach that would allow some prisoners to be released earlier based on response to treatment and programming, rather than the current one-size-fits-all approach, Schnell said, would allow for a more efficient use of resources by focusing on prisoners most in need of them.

Savings from a more effective use of resources would then be redistributed in quarters, Schnell said: 25% would be invested into transitional services, such as temporary housing for those just released from prison, and another 25% would be invested in primary prevention and fighting root causes of crime such as poverty.

Not all of these funds would go straight back into corrections: 25% would go back to the state’s general fund “as a dividend to taxpayers,” and a final 25% would be for victim services: healing for survivors of the crimes perpetrated by prisoners benefitting from corrections programs.

The corrections bill was passed about a year ago and was supposed to begin implementation in August, but in a memo last year Schnell said full implementation could take until early 2025. Schnell said he has the power to release more prisoners now, which would reduce strain on the staff and system, but he was concerned that releasing prisoners without proper support sets them up for failure.

“If we had the kind of safety net and structure that could support that in the community, that would be a viable opportunity that does not exist today,” Schnell said.

Curry, who is currently released on intensive supervised release, now volunteers with the Ramsey County sheriff’s office to rehabilitate former gang members. He said there needs to be more understanding from law enforcement and prison staff, as well as more staff members at all levels who have experienced incarceration.

“A lot of us are going to get out eventually,” he said, noting that while he was in prison, he couldn’t pay bills for his car or house, both of which he lost, leaving him homeless once he saw the outside. That was something that affected more than just him. “We are still human beings, we still have families.”

As an answer to the philosophical question of ‘What are prisons truly for?’ Schnell said that holding people responsible and punitive actions are only pieces of a bigger picture.

“And yet, we know that if all we’re going to be in the business of, if that’s the essence of criminal justice response to wrongdoing, we’re going to fail … our history here is to simply lock people up, and to try and hold them accountable and believe that putting two grown adults in effectively a bathroom together, and expecting that experience itself is going to keep them from engaging in future misconduct when they get out. It’s just not.”


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