New DOC commissioner says officer safety is top priority

January 16, 2019 10:04 PM

The new Department of Corrections commissioner says safety is his top priority.

That's after a spike in assaults on corrections officers, including that on Joseph Gomm, the first corrections officer to be killed in the line of duty last July.

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"These are really difficult environments," said Paul Schnell, who has taken over the top DOC job. 

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Even with less than two weeks on the job, Schnell said he's already aware of the problem and knows it needs to be tightened up. 

"We need to make sure we have safety and security stuff addressed," he said. "That's a basic human need." 

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The area of the industry building at MCF-Stillwater where Gomm was killed when he was attacked by an inmate last summer remains closed.

"It will remain so for a period of time," Schnell said. "But we are still in discussion, even in the last eight days, about what the future of programs (are) and what it's going to look like (there) over the coming years."

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In the months that followed the incident, some staff across the state refused to work, citing safety concerns.

"To be able to do all the programming we do here at Stillwater, we have to have the safety and security to do so," said Sgt. John Hillyard, who works at the facility. 

One of the biggest challenges statewide is staffing, and the need to fill dozens of positions. So the DOC is trying to figure out ways to recruit.

"Certainly we still have vacancies," Schnell said. "At any given time, somewhere between 30 and 70 below. Which obviously has big impact on the operations of our facilities." 

Schnell said he is looking at everything - including investments in technology, starting wages for staff and ways to retain employees.

"People need to realize these are good jobs and people can make a difference here," Schnell said. 

The hope is also to offer inmates more opportunities to learn and plan a future after prison.

"When people are occupied, when people are engaged, when people have purpose - that affects their entire view," Schnell said. 

Some staff members with decades of experience say working in a prison is all about respect. And they're hopeful that addressing some of these issues will give them added peace of mind. 

"A good shift is always when the same people walk out," Hillyard said. 

State lawmakers are working on legislation that would add hundreds of additional officers for all 10 Minnesota prisons over the next four years.

It's called the "Joseph Gomm Bill."


 

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Brett Hoffland

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