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Renewed push to bring back 'safety valve' as prison violence escalates

May 13, 2019 10:59 AM

After a violent 12-month stretch in Minnesota prisons that included numerous assaults, system-wide lockdowns and the murder of a corrections officer, lawmakers are now debating whether a defunct state program should be re-instated to help ease escalating tensions.

Those kinds of conditions in the state's prison system were once addressed by the Ombudsman for Corrections, a program that was tasked with defusing the friction that exists between inmates and corrections officers.

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At the time, the ombudsman was an independent investigator who answered only to the governor and acted as a buffer between inmates and officers.

"We marketed ourselves as a sort of safety valve…diffuse situations before they escalated," said Pat Seleen, who served as the ombudsman in the 1990s.

Since then, the prison population has ballooned and Department of Corrections records show violence has consistently escalated along with it.

Roughly every other day a prison guard in Minnesota experiences a variety of confrontations with inmates – ranging from having feces thrown at them, being spit on or being assaulted – according to a 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS review of the latest inmate discipline records.

The violence reached a tipping point last summer with the murder of corrections officer Joseph Gomm at the Stillwater Correctional Facility. Since Gomm's death, lawmakers, who have even held committee hearings inside prison facilities in an effort to emphasize the urgency, have called for more cameras and funding for additional officers. However, inmates, prison reform advocates and DOC officials say bringing the ombudsman office back may be one of the most cost effective solutions.

"It will ultimately create safer facilities," said Paul Schnell, the new DOC commissioner.

Schnell told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS he is even willing to make cuts in his own department to cover the $900,000 needed to re-install the so-called safety valve.

Reform after Attica riots

T. Williams, the state's first prison ombudsman who served from 1972-1983, says he was hired because of the riots in Attica, New York in 1971 that led to the deaths of 43 people, including 10 corrections officers.

"What they discovered after was that a lot of it could be traced back to a failure to respond more mundane grievances of the prisoners," Williams said. "Prisoners were complaining about not having toilet paper, not having soap... basic necessities."

Williams testified before the legislature earlier this year and is leading the push by prison reform advocates to reinstate the position.

"Not only could it work, it has worked," he said.

By the late 1990s, the ombudsman's office included a team of at least four investigators who resolved roughly 5,000 complaints a year, according to a biennial report issued by the office at the time.

"Intervention on behalf of the ombudsman has saved lives... officers' lives," Williams added.

Inmate Kevin Reese says he has witnessed multiple attacks on correctional officers from his prison cell in over the years.

"It's horrific to watch," he said. "Nobody likes to see it. Nobody thinks it's OK."

Reese, who expects to be released from the Faribault Correctional Facility later this year after serving more than 14 years for aiding and abetting in second degree murder, says he believes having an independent investigator would de-escalate the tension.

"The inmate population feels like they have no representation or no recourse," he said. "What would happen is the tension would lessen and slowly but surely that uptick in violence would turn around."

Office disbanded

In 2003, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty slashed funding for the office, arguing there were already mechanisms in place to resolve conflicts within the prison system.

The state legislature considered bringing it back but that idea was resisted by DOC officials who deemed it an unnecessary cost to taxpayers, according to a 2008 study.

That attitude now appears to be changing.

"These are big, large institutions and to have that third party, we felt it was very, critically important," Schnell told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.
While there has been opposition in the past, the union representing corrections officers says it supports the program, however, their primary focus is on the proposal to add more officers.

Restoring the ombudsman office amounts to a fraction of that investment.

Ryan Raiche can be reached by email here or by calling 651-642-4544.

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Ryan Raiche

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