Recapping a year in the Minnesota DOC

Courtesy of MN.gov Rush City Correctional Facility

This year we have seen some changes and a lot of talk surrounding criminal justice and prison reform, not just locally but nationwide. With the new governor, Minnesota got a new commissioner of corrections, too.

In one of his first interviews, Commissioner Paul Schnell promised a level of transparency that hasn’t been previously seen while he implements changes that benefit staff and inmates.  Among the changes were the reassigning of wardens to different prisons and the ending of the inhumane no-touch rule in the women’s prison. Reforms to solitary confinement were signed by the governor, an ex-con was put on the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, and the Ombudsman for Corrections was added during the legislative session.

As the year comes to a close, I’m sure many are wondering just what type of impact those changes have had on prisoners. Besides the women inmates in Shakopee? None. It may sound harsh, but the truth often is.

On the inside, Minnesota’s prisons are still pretty much the same. Programming and out of cell time is still being canceled frequently due to “staff shortages.” We are still being double-bunked in Rush City where they are mixing the mentally ill and violent prisoners with those who are focused on bettering themselves. People are still being sent back to prison and kept in prison for technical parole violations. The Ombudsman’s seat is still vacant.

And after the latest staff assault here in Rush City (11/19) on a guard that had many written and verbal complaints against them. Prisoners are still wondering when the guards are going to be held accountable when they’re unprofessional and disrespectful.

Now that they’re calling segregation “restrictive housing,” how much has changed? Not much. The conditions are still the same in Rush City’s segregation unit: the cells are filthy, we’re still only able to flush our toilets once every 30 minutes and run our cold water once every 10.

Sleep deprivation tactics are still being used by keeping the bright fluorescent lights on from 5:50 am to 10:00 pm every day. The water is extremely hard and gets undrinkable salty for days every month (in the entire prison). Inmates in segregation still aren’t allowed to buy bars of soap or washcloths.

Discipline staff have found a way around the so-called reforms of solitary confinement by placing inmates on administrative segregation status. This means they can leave a prisoner in segregation until their investigation is done (and then place them on discipline status, extending their stay) or they feel the prisoner is no longer a “threat.” We have seen a big increase in people being placed on Administrative segregation here.

The OLA (Office of Legislative Audits) and the ACA (American Corrections Association) did audits of the MN DOC in the past few months. But I wonder just how thorough their assessments are going to be when the facility was warned and prepped in advance? We all saw the change in behavior as the audits were conducted.

Despite all that, I am hopeful that positive changes are going to happen within the state’s prisons. I wrote Commissioner Schnell and the vice-chair of the Public Safety Committee this year, discussing a range of issues, and I received responses from them both; responses that I believe were thoughtful and genuine.

It looks as if some lifers who have spent 20-plus years rehabilitating themselves will get a real shot at being paroled. And every day I am encouraged by the individual progress being made by the men behind these walls.

I know change doesn’t happen all at once, but there are steps that can and NEED to be taken immediately to address some serious issues that are occurring in Rush City. I am one of many prisoners who is tired of not having the concerns we raise taken seriously by the powers that be.

I am also one of the few who reach out to DOC officials and prison administration with realistic ideas on how to ease tensions and create a safer, more rehabilitative environment.

The next time a bad incident happens here that catches the attention of the media, I implore them to ask both sides “why?”

Antonio Williams currently resides at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Rush City.