Lawmakers tour Stillwater prison ahead of staffing debate

January 29, 2019 09:37 AM

Five DFL State Representatives who serve on the corrections committee toured the 150-year-old state correctional facility in Stillwater on Friday to see first-hand what corrections officers face on duty.

The Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater houses more than 1,400 violent offenders.


"I do understand it's safety first and get everyone safe, the offender and the staff," said Rep. Michelle Christensen of Stillwater.

Back in the summer, corrections officer Joseph Gomm was killed while on duty by an inmate in the industrial area.

It’s fueled debate on staffing at correctional facilities across Minnesota.

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Local 600 Union President John Hillyard said the need is at 327 guards statewide to bring up staffing.

The industrial area currently only has one building with staff and inmates, Hillyard said.

There were at least 5 other buildings that once were opened and used by inmates and staff before Gomm’s  death that are now closed at the prison.

Some educational training programs have also closed after Gomm’s death. Prison staff said they are reevaluating the programs to see when the can be reopened. 

Shakopee Representative Brad Tabke told corrections staff about his bill to allow body scanners inside Minnesota prisons, similar to what is used at airports to screen passengers.

"We would love them," said Associate Warden of Administration Victor Wanchena "Current state statue wouldn't allow us to do that."

The lawmakers got to see inside inmate cells that include a bunk, toilet and television. Only 60 inmates have a cellmate at Stillwater.

Lawmakers questioned staff on inmate access to mental health and educational opportunities.

At the end of the three-hour tour, Corrections Chairman Representative Jack Considine said Minnesota prisons have been neglected by lawmakers for 25 years.

"This is directly on the legislature," he said. "They haven't shown a lot of interest in what was going on, and haven't funded a lot of things, not just staffing." 

Corrections Committee members will hold a meeting Wednesday with staff, union representatives and the new commissioner inside prison walls.

Shortly after the meeting, DFL Representatives said they plan to file the Officer Joseph Gomm Bill to increase funding to hire more  staff.

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Eric Chaloux

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