Overcrowding in Rush City Prison creates a risk to the public

In October 2011, Jeffrey Young submitted his first commentary to the MSR. His following commentaries become “Reaching Out,” a column in which he wrote about issue surrounding his incarceration. “Reaching Out” was regularly published in the MSR through April of 2014.

We welcome Jeffrey Young back with the commentary below, giving readers a vivid glimpse through his eyes as he reaches out from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Rush City.

“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our community as whole people?” — President Barack Obama

This past January, President Obama issued executive orders forcing the federal prison system to change its solitary confinement practices. But an often overlooked issue is how double bunking and overcrowding in prisons creates dangerous risk as well.

Take for example a couple of incidences that occurred in Minnesota Correctional Facility (MCF) Rush City, the prison I currently live in. Around 2 am, while an inmate was sleeping in the bottom bunk bed of his cell, his cellmate leaped from the top bunk to the floor. He glared at his cellmate in the bottom bunk and yelled, “You’re gonna make me do something evil if you don’t quit running your mouth!”

The inmate in the bottom bunk awoke to his cellmate’s perspiring and ferocious face. He recognized that he was dealing with a mentally ill inmate. He spent four hours trying to avoid an altercation and convince his cellmate that the voices in his head were not real. When the cell doors unlocked at 6 am, the mentally ill inmate was moved to another cell where he assaulted his new cellmate.

In another incident, a predatory sex offender offered his cellmate some Kool-Aid while they were locked in their cell together. Several hours later, the young man who accepted the Kool-Aid woke up. He was unaware of when he passed out, but fully aware of the excruciating pain he felt in his rectum. His cellmate drugged the Kool-Aid and raped him while he was unconscious.

MCF Rush City’s 1000 inmates live in double-bunked cells, but the prison’s infrastructure and programming space was initially designed for approximately 550 inmates to live in single-occupancy cells. According to the Department of Justice 2014 report, Minnesota is one of only 17 states that exceed their maximum operational capacity. Operational capacity is based on the ability of staff to accommodate a certain size population of inmates and the available rehabilitation programs or services.

This past November, Tony Jackson, an inmate in MCF Rush City filed a class action civil rights complaint against Rush City prison conditions. Jackson stated that state officials, including Governor Mark Dayton and Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Tom Roy, allowed the overcrowded double-bunking conditions in order to increase revenue by utilizing the increased prisoner population as consumers of items such as phone time and canteen purchases.

The lawsuit focuses on how stress and dangers of double bunking, coupled with the lack of programming space, decreases rehabilitation opportunities and contributes to psychological effects that hinder inmates’ abilities to reintegrate into society. To support his case, Jackson documents several murders that occurred over the last two years, including the murder of a police officer, which all involved men who were released from MCF Rush City.

The lawsuit requests that MCF Rush City comply with its original design plan as a single-occupancy cell facility, and expand programming space for more rehabilitative classes and separate housing space for the mentally ill and other vulnerable inmates.

So, where would the extra 500 inmates go if MCF Rush City returns to one inmate per cell? Simple. First, 35 percent of Minnesota’s prison admissions result from parole violations according to the 2014 Department of Justice Report. That’s 10 percent more than the national average. And approximately 50 percent of MCF Rush City inmates are parole violators, people sent to prison on the tax payer’s dimes for possessing a cell phone, driving to work rather than using public transportation, missing an appointment, or other technical violations that don’t involve a new crime.

Second, the DOC 2015 Adult Inmate profile revealed that nearly 20 percent of Minnesota inmates were sent to prison for a drug conviction. If Minnesota would stop sending people to prison for technical violations and drug addictions, the double bunking in MCF Rush City could easily be eliminated.

For now, while MCF Rush City inmates await the court’s ruling, incarceration is still treated as a cure for drug addiction and a solution for technical violations. The overflow of parole violators and drug addicts continues to cause the DOC to exceed its rehabilitative programming and treatment of inmates.

This process will continue unless our community makes their voices heard. Ramsey and Hennepin County provide the DOC with almost 40 percent of their inmates. It’s our families that are being affected.

Make your voices heard and express your concerns.

Jeffrey Young welcomes reader responses to Jeffrey Young #213390, 7600 525th St., Rush City, MN 55069.