Minn. lawmakers go behind bars as they study prison security concerns

Officials at the Stillwater prison said there are 235 corrections officers working there and 25 unfilled positions


Christopher Magan
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

For the first time in a long time, state lawmakers who make policies about prisons spent some time in one.

Five members of the House corrections subcommittee toured the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater on Friday. Next week, the subcommittee will hold a legislative hearing at the prison in Bayport.

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For Warden Eddie Miles, both are firsts in his decade-long tenure.

“It gives us an opportunity to show just what we do and who we are,” Miles said.

That understanding is paramount for the Legislature and the community at large, said Rep. John “Jack” Considine Jr., DFL-Mankato, who chairs the subcommittee and was once a corrections worker.

“I think people forget about prisons,” Considine said. “You put the offenders away and they’re done. OK, we can forget about it. But you can’t.”

The Stillwater prison has lawmakers’ attention because officer Joseph Gomm was allegedly killed by inmate Edward Muhammad Johnson there last July. Gomm was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in Building 20, a workshop on the prison grounds that is now idle.

Gomm had apparently told family members before his death that he feared for his life while working at the prison. Members of the corrections officers union also said the facility was understaffed, which led to dangerous situations.

Considine and Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who leads the larger public safety committee, plan to soon detail a corrections staffing bill that will be named for Gomm.

Officials at the Stillwater prison said there are 235 corrections officers working there and 25 unfilled positions. The prison holds more than 1,500 inmates. Officials are advocating for more funding to increase staffing at corrections facilities statewide.

Victor Wanchena, associate warden, said there are times low staffing levels force guards to restrict the activities for inmates that can be bad for prisoner morale.

“We have good days and bad days,” Wanchena said. “Days when we are short, for a variety of reasons, things like recreation are things we have to shut down.”

Lawmakers spent nearly three hours touring the facility. They saw cell block B-east where about 250 men are jailed at any one time.

While most of the prisoners have their own cells about 60 are double-bunked in space now typically reserved for one person.

“It is amazing the amount of issues we have from double bunking,” Wanchena said. “I desperately love my wife, but I can’t imagine being stuck in a cell with her 16-hours a day. You can only imagine the kind of friction that causes between two people who may not be the best of friends.”

Lawmakers also saw the inside of one the prison’s 150 solitary confinement cells. Those were built about 10 years ago and are the newest part of the 105 year-old facility.

They also learned about the various education programs offered at the prison, which range from high school equivalency to postsecondary. Programs also included skills like welding and cabinet making that were put on hold after Gomm was killed.

Mariani and Considine said they hope the more educational opportunities will be made available to inmates so they can be productive neighbors when released. But first they must improve the safety of the state’s prisons.

“We make powerful citizens when we create opportunities for them to be better people,” Mariani said. “If you have an unsafe environment, you can’t do that work.”

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©2019 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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