What is really behind violence in Minnesota’s prisons?

MGN Online

With all the headlines in the news about inmate-on-staff violence in Minnesota’s prisons, one wonders if some new strain of prisoner is coming into the prisons, or if prisoners are just waking up in their cells, missing their families, regretting the choices and deciding that today they’re going to assault a prison guard.

It is going on my 13th year of confinement — most of it spent in Oak Park Heights and Stillwater prisons where most of the serious incidents are occurring — and I can say with confidence that none of that is true. The narrative that a shortage of staff, an influx of inmates, or the new Step-Down Segregation policy are causes is just as untrue.

And while many reports are intentionally exaggerated, there’s no disputing that some assaults are happening. But what is the real cause behind them?

The root cause is a lack of accountability by officers and prison officials. When a prisoner has an issue, we’re told to “write a kite,” which is a yellow piece of paper we use to correspond with all prison officials. It is also how we get our medical issues addressed, sign up for different in-facility programs, and attempt to report staff misconduct.

This “kite” system is broken, however — especially when reporting misconduct, because the person reviewing a kite is usually a friend or a relative of the person the kite is about.

I have seen prisoners get called “snitches” by staff after they found out a kite was written for their misconduct. This shows corrections officers have an expectation of not being held accountable for misconduct, or at the very least, they’re so used to not being held accountable that they’re offended when a prisoner tries. And, it shows that whatever step the higher authority took to address the issue was so inconsequential that it had no effect on the corrections officer.

Corrections officers ignoring or mistreating prisoners without accountability does result in death — but usually for prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 150 prisoners died behind prison walls in Minnesota between 2005-2014. I personally was at Oak Park when three guards were in the news for falsifying their security round reports. Their falsification was an attempt to cover up their negligence that resulted in a man committing suicide after his repeated cries for help were ignored. This happened several times in the following years but didn’t make the news.

In a recent Star Tribune article by Liz Sawyer, former correctional officer Dave Campbell names staff shortages and new inmates as the reasons behind the elevated danger to guards. Here are a couple of facts that were left out of this article: In 2018, 2,771 (35.6 percent) of 7,775 total prison admissions were technical parole violators — people overfilling the prisons for minor rule violations, not new crimes. The previous three years look the same: 35.8 percent, 34.5 percent, and 32.6 percent, respectively. And, the media is leaving out the fact that there are people who have served 20, 30 and more years, but are constantly denied parole.

Why isn’t there a real push to stop sending people who haven’t committed new crimes back to prison? Why aren’t we releasing those who have served their time so we can chip away at the overcrowding which contributes to the violence?

Why isn’t the local media just as obsessed with the positive stories inside Minnesota prisons? Behind the same walls and fences that hold back “the state’s most dangerous criminals,” meals for homeless and poor families are being packaged and sent out. Thousands of dollars are being donated to victims of crime and misfortune several times a year. Absent fathers are paying child support voluntarily. Dogs are being loved, trained and readied for adoption. National writing awards are being won. Men are mentoring other men so they can be better people inside and outside of these walls and fences. And, some men are attempting to repair some of the harm they caused by writing Victim Apology Letters.

Not all guards think all prisoners are bad and vice versa, but the “good” guards aren’t holding the bad ones accountable. Officers have confided in some of us prisoners and told us that their union (AFSCME) is trying to get hazard pay for all officers. So they are inciting and exaggerating incidents; politicizing recent tragedies to benefit their agenda. They’re continuing to allow, and possibly encourage, their problematic officers to ramp up disrespect, aggressive tones, and unprofessionalism.

And what underlies all of this? Is there an overall attitude that guards should be allowed to treat prisoners any way they want? Are the government and the community supposed to fund and support them?

Antonio Williams is currently in Rush City Correctional Facility.