Prison Death Triggers Security Investigation Across Minnesota

May 17, 2016 06:08 AM

The Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility in Washington County is supposed to be one of the most secure prisons in the country but 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has found that guards there have routinely failed to perform security rounds.

Those significant security breaches led to the November death of an inmate who had warned prison staff that he was going to kill himself, according to interviews and internal investigative documents obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.

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Those documents also reveal that correction officers made false entries into prison log books that indicated they’d performed their rounds when, in fact, they didn’t do their job.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS discovered a pattern of corrections officers failing to do security rounds at Oak Park Heights that has led to at least 19 officers being disciplined in recent months for their failure to do rounds in the days leading to the inmate’s death, according to Minnesota Department of Corrections records.

As a result, the DOC has ordered a security review of its procedures in the other 10 correctional facilities across Minnesota, according to persons with knowledge of the investigation.

“They didn't follow policy, there really isn't an excuse at all, there are no excuses," said Barb Stoltz, retired program director at the prison in Oak Park Heights. Stoltz, the first woman to attain the rank of lieutenant in Minnesota’s Department of Corrections, had more than 30 years of experience in prison operations – 15 of those years at Oak Park Heights.

Surrounded with razor wire, built deep into the ground, the Oak Park Heights facility is a menacing place, housing almost 450 of the state's most violent criminals.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS showed Stoltz a Department of Corrections investigative report that detailed officers violating security policies surrounding the suicide of William St. John in November, 2015.

"It's unbelievable, incomprehensible, it shouldn't have happened,” Stoltz said. “Everything that happened that day and prior to that was wrong."

St. John, who was convicted of violent crimes including assault and bank robbery, was found in a prison shower.

After St. John’s suicide, DOC investigators reviewed security logs and videos in the complex where St. John was locked up. The DOC investigative report surrounding St. John's death exposed corrections officers routinely failing to do rounds and making false entries into log books indicating rounds had been made.

“Let’s say no rounds were done, you might as well not do a count, that could lead to an attempted escape perhaps, a hostage situation, murder, rape," Stoltz said.

A Warning Note

On Nov. 13, 2015, the day before St. John's death, a DOC incident report records a letter from him to prison staff that read, “If I go back to ACU, I’ll kill myself.”

St. John did not want to be moved from the mental health wing of the prison to another where his movement would be restricted, a place where an inmate sleeps, lives and showers inside the cell.

A corrections officer with direct knowledge of the investigation told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that St. John’s information was never shared with guards who came on duty to start their shifts.

There were no cameras in the shower area where St. John took his own life. Officer Elmore later told an investigator, “ ... with no camera, no one goes up and checks."

Outside Expert

"Generally, prisons take suicide very seriously, because in jails and prisons it's a major cause of death," Dr. Thomas White said.

For 26 years, White worked in the federal prison system, part of it as the chief psychologist at the notorious Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS shared the Minnesota DOC investigative report with White. He concluded that there should be an overhaul of operations at Oak Park Heights.

"I think it's pretty clear things could have been better," White said. “Prisons run in a hierarchical fashion, a pyramid fashion a lot of people at the bottom and few people on the top, everyone along the line has to really make sure they provide oversight."

Punishment Handed Out

Officer Matthew Elmore, one of three guards on-duty in St. John’s unit at the time of the death, told a DOC investigator: "It's common practice not to do security rounds every 30 minutes as required by policy."

Elmore said, “I think everyone is aware how busy we are but I am not sure they are aware of the practices we do," according to the interview contained in the report.

DOC disciplinary records show officers Elmore, Ian Sinclair, and Tendeh Brownell – on duty at the time of the death – failed to follow security procedures and were all were given 30-day suspensions without pay.

After St. John’s suicide, DOC investigators found at least 16 other corrections officers failed to perform their security rounds in the weeks leading up to St. John’s death, according to disciplinary records reviewed by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.

The records show four of those officers failed to perform rounds on at least six different days and were given written reprimands. In one of those cases, an officer failed to make his rounds on nine different days prior to the suicide.

Based on records reviewed, no officer above the rank of sergeant received a disciplinary letter.

Response to Security Problems

DOC Commissioner Tom Roy declined an on-camera interview to discuss the investigation and the security failures that led up to the death.

Instead, his office sent 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS responses to some of the 10 questions provided in writing.

“It was not acceptable that our rounds-policy was not followed,” a DOC statement said. “Inherent in the list of responsibilities for all employees of a maximum security facility, regardless of their classification, is facility security.”

The DOC continued, “All employees are expected to be alert at all times and to report or intervene immediately if any behavior or activity which could affect the collective responsibility to protect the public, maintain security and control of the facility or provide for the safety of staff and residents.”

Roy and his staff failed to explain reasons why high ranking supervisors were not disciplined for not detecting that officers were failing to do their rounds. Roy is seeking an additional 32 more officers to be added to the prison staff.

The Prisoner’s Family

"A lot of things could have been different, if they just did their job right," St. John's son Tony Philbrick said.

In a small basement apartment in an old brick building in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, Philbrick has a painting of a woman in Native American dress on the wall, painted by his father in a Minnesota prison.

St. John would send his son art to see in hopes it would be sold to help support the family.

"Despite everything he had done in his life, what people say about him, he is still my dad, he treated me like a son, and took care of me the best he can,” Philbrick said. “They just told me he hung himself – that was it, plain and simple.”

Philbrick said he only received a phone call from a nurse that his father tried to kill himself, asking him if he wanted to take St. John off-life support.

Page by page, Philbrick flipped through the details he had been seeking after 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS sat down with him and showed him the state’s investigative report.

“This here is kind of heart breaking," Philbrick said. “If they don't like their jobs that much to where they want to do it right, they can at least kick their shoes off and quit, let somebody else who wants that job to step up to the plate.”

See Also: National Geographic Channel Documentary on Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility

Contact Eric Chaloux at echaloux@kstp.com or 651-642-4488.

Credits

Eric Chaloux

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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