Minn. prison officials will close industry building where CO was killed

The move is one of a number changes the state’s prison system plans to make in the wake of Officer Joseph Gomm's slaying

By Liz Sawyer
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

STILLWATER, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Corrections will close the industry building where a Stillwater corrections officer was killed by an inmate last week, one of a number changes the state’s prison system plans to make in the wake of the slaying.

DOC Commissioner Tom Roy laid out the planned change the day after Corrections officer Joseph Gomm was buried with full honors. Gomm, a 45-year-old veteran officer from Blaine, is the first corrections officer in Minnesota to be killed in the line of duty.

Edward Muhammad Johnson, who is serving a nearly 29-year sentence for second-degree murder, is accused of stabbing and beating Gomm to death July 18 in an industry building on the prison grounds. Roy, who was still visibly emotional, said the current welding shop in the building “will not continue operation until we do a full assessment of that building.”

“I think it’s fair to say the floor that Officer Gomm was killed in will not be utilized within this administration,” he said.

Roy said the Stillwater Correctional Facility remains on lockdown, while other prisons throughout the state have resumed normal function.

There’s still a plan for Stillwater for “a progressive return to normal,” Roy said, but the plan isn’t completely developed.

“Lockdown is not the preferred state for Stillwater,” Roy said. “We’re gonna get back to operating, we’re gonna do that thoughtfully, we’re gonna do that sensitive to the needs of staff and I fully accept those concerns from (corrections officers’) families.”

Roy confirmed that three officers have resigned in the wake of Gomm’s death, while a “double-digit” number are on leave.

“We have staff that are significantly struggling,” Roy said.

Roy said there are currently 329 uniformed staff members at Stillwater for a population of 1,594 inmates, a ratio of 4.8 inmates per staffer. He confirmed they were short one officer in the industrial area on the day Gomm, who was alone at the time, was killed. He declined to say whether there were cameras in the area.

Roy said expanding cameras and Wi-Fi to enable livestreaming of surveillance video is among prison initiatives. He reiterated that funding from the Legislature is vital for making such changes — staffing in particular. As he does every year, he plans to make a detailed presentation on the DOC’s needs to lawmakers.

“If we don’t make decisions based on information it’s not good government, and good government at this time is supporting our staffing requests as we form our budget,” Roy said. “We are going to put those numbers forward again and we’re going to make this request again.”

Johnson, 42, was moved to the more restrictive maximum-security prison in Oak Park Heights following the attack. He has a long history of violence that includes a 2002 assault of a Hennepin County deputy.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who’s prosecuted about 150 inmates for assaults — most of them against corrections officers — said he intends to seek the sternest possible punishment for Johnson.

Johnson was set to be released from prison in late 2022 and then serve the balance of his sentence on supervised release. However, a conviction for Gomm’s death could keep him behind bars for the rest of his life.

On Thursday, thousands of law enforcement officers from around the country packed North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills for Gomm’s funeral. Afterward, fellow correctional officers escorted Gomm’s flag-draped casket from the church to Roselawn Cemetery in Roseville. Hundreds of people lined the 9-mile route.

Jeff Beahen, Rogers police chief and president of the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association, said the somber final salute was a harsh reality check for fellow officers who put their lives on the line each day.

“I think everyone feels this loss,” Beahen said. “There’s a lot of strife in America right now and distrust of police. But it buoys our spirits that at least in the worst of times that communities still come together and support us knowing that someone has made that ultimate sacrifice.”

©2018 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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