‘Toxic’ DOC culture at root of staffing, safety issues, corrections officers say

Minnesota DOC staffing shortage concerns

Minnesota DOC staffing shortage concerns

Former and current corrections officers are speaking out against a “toxic culture” that has made it difficult for the Minnesota Department of Corrections to recruit and retain staff.

On Sunday, the Stillwater prison was placed on lockdown after about 100 inmates staged a protest, refusing to go back to their cells for several hours over claims of inhumane conditions. Among their grievances was a lack of access to showers, phones and recreation due to staffing shortages.

DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell acknowledged the staffing challenges, telling reporters that his department currently has about 300 corrections officer vacancies out of 2,100 authorized positions statewide.

“There’s a toxic culture within the Department of Corrections, hands down,” said Sgt. Shane Warnke Jr., a Stillwater corrections officer.

Angi Wenholz, a former Lino Lakes corrections officer, partly blames a “huge” turnover rate on what she calls low wages and increasingly worse benefits.

RELATED: Minnesota DOC looks to add officers amid wave of prison assaults

Schnell addressed turnover and pay in an interview with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS back in March.

“They could get bonuses as high as $10,000 to come and work here,” he said. “You got half of that in one year and the second half at the end of year two, but we found half those people leave before they collect that first payment.”

Weinholz says it’s the leadership that’s keeping staff from staying around.

“There’s a lot of things that they hide,” she said. “There’s a lot of assaults that they hide. There’s a lot of sexual harassment and discrimination that they hide.”

A DOC spokesperson calls that accusation baseless, pointing to a new division created in recent years with a priority to investigate such claims.

Warnke says he’s concerned short staff could pose a hazard for inmates and staff alike.

“They’re now cutting corners in such a way that somebody’s gonna get hurt, somebody’s gonna get hurt or killed,” he said.

RELATED: Activists demand change, DOC orders water quality re-test after inmate protest at Stillwater prison

At the Stillwater facility, Warnke says only two units out of six have secure officer stations, or “bubbles,” inside prison dorms.

“When you do have a bubble, you can isolate cells, and it also provides an indication as to whether or not the cell door is secured or not,” Warnke said.

The DOC admitted there are secure areas in every living unit, but not all have bubbles.

“They’ve got to make it safer. They’ve got to make it safer,” Weinholz said. “They got to stop taking away from the inmates because that puts everybody in danger. And the only way to do that is to hire more staff.”

The Stillwater lockdown lasted through the holiday weekend and was set to be lifted Tuesday afternoon. No inmates or staff were harmed.