See more of the story

Staff shortages in Minnesota prisons are driving a glut in overtime hours for correctional officers, taking away valuable rehabilitative programs for inmates and making the facilities more dangerous for staff and prisoners.

Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor presented the results of a scathing assessment on security in the state’s prison system Wednesday, showing how a rise in inmate population has long outpaced staffing levels, hindering safety in Minnesota’s 11 prisons. At the same time, the Department of Corrections has failed to create a comprehensive system to track assaults, meaning leadership doesn’t fully understand the security problems they face or how to fix them.

“I really feel like we are at an absolute crisis here at the DOC. We are at a breaking point,” said Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, at the audit hearing. “Right now, we’ve got to stop the bleeding.”

“I feel that same sense of emergency,” said Paul Schnell, who was appointed as commissioner of corrections in January 2019. “If I could wave a wand and fix this, I would do it in a second.”

In 1998, Minnesota prisons incarcerated 5,680 inmates and employed 3,100 full-time staff. In subsequent years, legislators passed a series of tough-on-crime laws that sent more people to prison for offenses such as drunken driving, guns and sex crimes. But the state failed to keep up with staffing levels. Last year, Minnesota counted 9,248 inmates and 3,740 corrections staff members, according to the audit.

To bridge the gap, existing staff have taken on more and more duties. From 2013 to 2019, overtime — much of it mandatory — for correctional officers quadrupled, according to the audit. The shortages have also cut out inmate activities such as therapy, education, jobs and recreation, creating tension in the prisons.

Prisoners now outnumber security staff by more than 4 to 1, and employees frequently work alone with large groups of inmates while exhausted and less alert. The newer, less experienced hires often get stuck taking on the most dangerous and least desirable positions.

Employees don’t intervene, and in many cases don’t even see, a significant proportion of the violence between prisoners, according to the audit. Instead they find inmates with unexplained injuries, such as a recent case when officers discovered a prisoner with a punctured lung.

“The report highlights troubling realities,” said Schnell. “I accept the findings and recommendations in whole because they reflect reality. I recognize that defensiveness, blame-laying and minimization won’t make correctional facilities safer.”

Sexual harassment, bullying

The report also identified a pattern of staff bullying, sometimes at the expense of safety, and in often in retaliation for reporting colleagues’ misconduct.

One officer told audit investigators of calling for backup during an emergency on a housing unit and the response team said, “No, we’re not coming,” because of “their perception that that officer had reported on other staffers,” audit co-author David Kirchner told lawmakers. “Those are stories that are difficult to hear, and those are stories that the Department of Corrections needs to address.”

About one-third of all prison staff — and 40% of black and female employees — said bullying and harassment are problems in their workplace, according to the audit. These issues were even worse at Oak Park Heights, the state’s only maximum-security facility.

Many said they didn’t believe leadership held their safety in high regard, especially in Oak Park Heights, where 60% of staff said leadership was not doing all it could to keep them safe.

Supervisors and staff at the prisons have also ignored or downplayed sexual offenses by prisoners against female employees, according to the report. “There are prisoners who expose themselves, who masturbate in front of female staff, who tell them in graphic detail what they want to do with them,” said Kirchner.

“It is something we heard about quite a bit from staff … they also told us they do not often feel supported by their co-workers or by their supervisors when this does occur,” and inmates are often not punished for the behavior as a result, he said.

The report comes in response to a violent year in 2018 in Minnesota prisons. That included a prisoner killing veteran officer Joseph Gomm in Stillwater in July. Two months later, officer Joseph Parise, of Oak Park Heights, fell ill and died shortly after assisting a colleague who was being assaulted by a prisoner.

In the face of poor data collection, auditors toured the facilities during all three work shifts, interviewed executive staff, and met with groups of corrections officers, lieutenants, nonuniformed staff, union representatives, and prisoners to conduct the audit. They believe the spike in violence that occurred in 2018 has since dropped, and they couldn’t determine what caused it.

The report makes 16 recommendations for the Department of Corrections to improve safety and other issues identified in the audit — foremost “transforming” the way it collects data to be able to better track and assess problems. Prison leadership should hire more officers, better track overtime hours, come up with greater efforts to address bullying and ensure supervisors take seriously allegations against prisoners who commit sex offenses.

The state should also develop a long-term plan to update archaic facilities in St. Cloud and Stillwater prisons that present safety concerns for staff. For instance, railings several stories high present the risk of someone falling or being pushed.

Schnell said he’s already begun working on some of the recommendations and plans to establish working groups to develop plans around each one.

Schnell apologized publicly to the female employees who have been sexually harassed and staff who reported bullying.

“I am sorry,” he said, “and I’m committed to changing it.”

“If we endeavor to transform the lives of those in our prisons, we must also model and expect respectful treatment of each other,” Schnell said. “Harassment, bullying, abuse, retaliation are contrary to the principles of respect for human dignity and a commitment to civility and have no place in our communities, much less our workplaces.”

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036