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Inmate-on-inmate assaults up at 3 Minnesota prisons

ST. PAUL — At two of Minnesota's most troubled prisons — Oak Park Heights and Stillwater — assaults by inmates against inmates increased by 20 percent in one year, according to figures released Monday by the state Department of Corrections.

The increase is less than that of inmates' assaults of prison employees, which more than doubled in the year ending June 30.

The increase in assaults against prisoners at the two prisons is not typical. Out of nine prisons in the state, six had decreasing numbers of such assaults. Only one other — Willow River/Moose Lake — showed an increase in assaults against prisoners.

Statewide, the number of assaults against prisoners was unchanged from fiscal year 2017 to 2018, at 497.

That means assaults against inmates were more than twice as common as assaults against prison employees.

The statistics give context to the one homicide and several high-profile assaults that have occurred recently at the Stillwater and Oak Park Heights prisons.

Inmate Edward Muhammad Johnson has been charged with first-degree murder in the July 18 stabbing and bludgeoning death of corrections officer Joseph Gomm at the Stillwater prison.

The maximum-security Oak Park Heights prison has been the scene of dozens of assaults against guards, including 10 that occurred in a single weekend in March.

In the year ending June 30, 188 corrections officers were assaulted, according to figures released by the department on Sept. 4. At all nine facilities, assaults against employees increased 66 percent to 188.

But most of the increase can be blamed on Stillwater and Oak Park Heights. In one year, Oak Park Heights' assaults against officers increased 74 percent to 66; and Stillwater assaults more than doubled, to 59 assaults.

The spike in violence against employees has brought new calls for more staffing at state prisons. The union presenting prison workers, AFSCME Council 5, has said that the prisons are understaffed and unsafe.

Department spokeswomen Sarah Fitzgerald said in an email Tuesday:

"These assaults cannot be attributed to a single cause. The cause of assaults range from mental illness to gang issues to personal issues. Stillwater and Oak Park Heights house the most dangerous offenders in Minnesota.

"We are actively working to identify patterns of assaults and prevent future assaults. ... The safety of our corrections officers and all those in our facilities is paramount."

The department, like the union, is requesting more staff.

A statement from the department said it has been asking the Legislature for the past eight years for 150 more corrections officers — a request that has not yet been granted.

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