State prison unrest exposes overcrowding, understaffing

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News Analysis

Recent prison unrest has shed new light on inmate concerns. After the July 18 beating death of Corrections Officer Joseph Gomm at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater, the state’s five prisons were all placed on lockdown.

During a lockdown, prisoners are confined to certain areas with activities and liberties restricted. Usually, they are kept in their cells throughout the day or until a particularly violent situation is resolved.

There are discrepancies between prisoners’ and the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) accounts on when prisons resumed normal status. The DOC reported one week later that all, except Stillwater, had resumed normal status. A DOC representative also said prisoners have received “showers every three days and were given hygiene bags as well as fresh linens.”

The Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, however, released a statement on Sept. 21 from Stillwater inmate Pepi McKenzie noting that, after 66 days, “We’re still locked in. They’re just letting us out three hours a day,” said McKenzie. “No recreation, no yard, no regular meals.” The normal schedule, he said, is being out 15 hours a day.

Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which is a prisoner-led section of the Industrial Workers of the World, questioned whether the DOC worked to responsibly restore order or took revenge against inmates.

“Everything has been retaliatory,” inmate Carlos Smith told MSR via Twin Cities IWOC. He complained that allotments of hygienic supplies were so stringently reduced that people resorted to borrowing toilet paper against regulations. Smith said the units reeked of body odor and uncollected garbage that drew fruit flies and, beyond a lack of laundry and showers leaving them “smelling like billy-goats.”

“They took about 60 of us, handcuffed together, naked,” said Smith. “We sat like that in the gym for an hour and a half while they ransacked our cells.”

Through the Twin Cities IWOC, Smith added, “Our clothes are mildewed because we have only had the chance to wash them once in the last 24 days.”

The Twin Cities IWOC also stated that Smith and an inmate identifying himself as Tony asserted that in those roughly three weeks, “No one received more than three showers or any clean clothing.”

More lockdowns have since ensued. On September 17, Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault prison was also placed on lockdown for three days after an inmate slugged a guard, with the ensuing brawl injuring three more. And, on September 28, the Oak Heights prison was on lockdown after the death of a guard who had gone to the aid of a fellow officer being beaten by an inmate.

Prisons’ ticking time bombs?

Former Stillwater corrections officer Sergeant Joe Miller said in television news interviews that he had growing concerns about the safety of correctional officers in recent years, and his worst fear was realized when he heard Gomm had been killed.

Smith told the MSR, “In my opinion, the warden and all his administrative staff were made aware of the foreseeable violent changes ahead. Stillwater was a time bomb waiting to explode.”

Smith notes, “Each unit is currently double-bunked, 32 cells, 64 prisoners, designed for single cell occupancy use…”

According to Penal Reform, overcrowding can “cause or exacerbate mental health problems, and increase rates of violence, self-harm and suicide.”

“Prison overcrowding is a vast issue in Minnesota,” according to Kellerlawoffices.com. “With many policymakers insistent on the need for stricter sentencing and no tolerance for multiple-offense inmates, state prisons are bursting at the seams [and] any space the releases make available is almost immediately occupied by new inmates.”

The site adds, “The Supreme Court’s ruling clearly shows that states have the responsibility to provide proper housing…for inmates. While Minnesota prisons are taking temporary action by housing people in jails, policymakers should address the underlying cause of overpopulation, and see where laws can be altered to prevent the situation from escalating further.”

Inadequate staffing

Robert Uran, a retired Minnesota Correctional Facility lieutenant, told KSTP-TV that the DOC has “woeful staff shortages” and that Officer Joseph Gomm’s murder could be repeated if this doesn’t change.

“I think a shortage in staffing…[is] directly related to the death of Officer Gomm,” said Uran. Three guards quit and 10 took leaves of absence following the fatal assault in Stillwater.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5 also released a statement citing insufficient staffing in state correctional facilities, saying it has lobbied the Minnesota Legislature for increased staffing and funding to no avail.

Miller stated that he’d been concerned about the DOC putting profit from the prison industry program above the safety of corrections officers.

Smith also voiced concerns regarding prison inmate labor. “We are not considered employees. By law, we are independent contract workers. As such, we can’t redress the judicial system for help. We don’t receive health care benefits nor do we receive [workers’] comp. If you get hurt on the job, you’re out of luck because you can’t miss more than seven hours from work or you’re terminated,” said Smith.

“As prisoners, we can be leased out as laborers for all types of work as long as it is represented under the guise of rehabilitation. Once you’re convicted and labeled as an offender, you no longer have rights under the 13th Amendment.”

Minnesota Department of Corrections spokesperson Sarah Fitzgerald did not respond to repeated requests to interview correction officers. The MSR would welcome a DOC response to this story’s depiction of the system as dangerously overcrowded and understaffed.