Minnesota prison tense amid workplace walkout, doubling of assaults against guards
STILLWATER, Minn.—About 30 employees on Wednesday refused to work in the Stillwater prison workshop where a corrections officer was killed, saying it was unsafe.
"Overall, morale is very low," said Tim Henderson, associate director of AFSCME Council 5, which represents about 2,000 corrections officers.
The walkout happened in the metal-working section of a workshop where officer Joseph Gomm was killed July 18.
The Department of Corrections had planned to reopen the workshop Wednesday, with the goal of having 140 inmates and 21 officers working there by next week, Henderson said.
But officers and other employees who arrived for work said that more security cameras and four to six more officers were needed.
Henderson said the move was not a strike, which is forbidden by law. He said it was a work action in which the officers refused to work in one area but were willing to work elsewhere.
A year-by-year Corrections Department tally of prison assaults released on Wednesday serves as a backdrop for the continuing unrest.
According to the document, 59 assaults against officers at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater happened during the year ending June 30. That's more than double the previous year.
Nearby, the assaults surged 74 percent at the maximum-security Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights. In all nine facilities across the state, assaults totaled 188, an increase of 66 percent from the year before.
These assaults all happened before the July 18 killing. According to Washington County authorities, Gomm was hit with a hammer and stabbed by inmate Edward Mohammed Johnson, who has been charged with first-degree murder.
Henderson said that the Corrections Department recently eased up on solitary confinement rules. The new policy, called the "90-day Step-Down," allows offenders to spend less time in isolation.
"They rolled this out in March, and the assaults increased," Henderson said.
If an inmate assaulted a guard before March, said Henderson, he would probably have to stay in isolation for a longer time. Now, he said, inmates can perform a series of tasks to reduce the isolation time.
"It is the perception of the officers that this is too soft," Henderson said. "There are things they must do, and then they can get out early for good behavior."
Since Gomm's death, there have been calls for reforms and for more staffing from the union and guards. But Henderson said any changes made so far have not made prisons safer for the officers.
"They feel that they are not being heard, and the ideas they have are not taken seriously," Henderson said.
The spikes in assaults can be "attributed to a variety of factors. Offenders are unpredictable, and we are seeing more offenders who are difficult to manage entering our prison system," Corrections Department spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald wrote in an email Wednesday.
The department is "re-evaluating" its discipline procedures and "reconfiguring" the workshop to make it safer, she said.
"These are just some of the measures the Department is undertaking to improve the safety of our facilities," the email said.
Fitzgerald also repeated an earlier statement that over the past eight years the department has requested that the state Legislature fund an additional 150 corrections officers and "unfortunately, those requests were not funded."
The department's tally shows that assaults actually dropped last year in two prisons: by 30 percent at the Lino Lakes facility, and by 25 percent at the women's prison in Shakopee.
But they surged in Stillwater and Oak Park Heights. Smaller facilities in St. Cloud, Rush City and Faribault saw increases in assaults against guards ranging from 50 to 60 percent.