​Minnesota Corrections double-bunking violates international prison standards

jail cell

 “Sealed into a 7×11 box without an intercom system to communicate any need for help, the prisoners’ fate is sealed on any given night,” said an inmate in a Rush City Correctional Facility.

Double-bunking or double celling is a form of population management in prisons. Two incarcerated people are put into one cell. In 1990, the Department of Corrections’ newsletter Perspectives called double-bunking “a misnomer used by legislators rather than the word crowding.

Double-bunking does neither adhere to the standards defined by the American Correctional Association (ACA) nor to the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) adopted by the United Nations. Yet the Minnesota legislature not only tolerates this practice but requires multiple occupancy “to the greatest extent possible” (Laws of Minnesota 1997, chapter 238, sec. 2).

Minnesota state prisons, with the recent exception of Stillwater, practice double or multiple bunking. Rush City, a high-security prison, was re-dedicated in 1997 for double-bunking. In Shakopee, St. Cloud, and until recently Stillwater, prisoners have less than 25 square feet of “unencumbered living space.” The normal residential bathroom is larger than that.

 When the bill allowing double-bunking or “crowding” sponsored by DFL representative Mary Murphy was first introduced in 1997, prison officials warned that a drastic increase in programming and staff would be necessary to counteract the consequences. These warnings were never addressed. Incarcerated people are caged together for days or weeks in a row often because of lockdowns, routine procedures, staff shortages, cell searches, security, or the current pandemic. Cell confinement and restriction of movements (“loss of privileges”) is also a universally practiced punishment.

 According to the Minnesota auditor’s report on Health Services in 2014, “Communicable diseases spread more readily due to overcrowded conditions“ In Stillwater, Minnesota’s oldest prison—which has a dysfunctional ventilation system–COVID spread to 977 of the 1290 incarcerated human beings. Minnesota prisons saw more than 4000 COVID cases and at least 12 deaths.

 Double-bunking also causes significant increases in stress levels, health problems, violence, and suicide, according to Canada’s Union of Correctional Officers. The 2020 auditor’s report on Safety in Correctional Facilities cites double-bunking as a reason for increased gang membership and it serves as a “perverse incentive to assault others”, or “to inflict self-injury” to be transferred to a potential single cell situation.

People incarcerated in Rush City attribute the violent death of 56-year-old James Francis Howard on March 21, 2021, to double-bunking.

 While double-bunking continues to cause problems for Minnesota prisons, prison overcrowding is a self-inflicted problem. While the crime rate has remained stable, the population under correctional control has doubled. The root causes of this include; policy and legislative changes, the reclassification of crimes into higher categories, the increase of statutory maximum sentences and mandatory minimum sentences, longer supervision times with stricter rules and revocation of parole as the universal punishment for violations.

 The ACLU points out that “in 2018, two in five prison admissions were returns from supervision, and the vast majority of that group – 88% – had not committed a new crime but only violated the conditions of supervision.”

This makes technical parole violations the biggest factor in the increase in prison population. People are separated from their families and sent back to prison time and time again, because they missed an appointment with a parole officer, or could not find a job or housing on time or had a beer.

 On the opposite end, people with a minimal risk of recidivism serve excessive life sentences without any prospect of release.

 The Department of Corrections has the authority to significantly reduce the prison population and make double-bunking unnecessary. To change the rules of supervised release (parole) and the revocation process does not require legislative action.

 Yet while states like New Jersey and California released thousands of people during the pandemic, the Minnesota DOC has made almost no use of work or medical release. A December 2020 research report prepared for the Ombudsman of Correction concluded that​ ​“COVID-19 expanded work release has not had a particularly large impact on prison population levels in Minnesota. DOC data lists 152 releases under COVID-19 Work Release; while this is a larger impact than some other COVID-19 response strategies, it is still relatively small overall.” According to the report only 154 of 2,392 applications for medical release were approved.”

 On April 21, 2021, the Justice Department announced an investigation of the Minneapolis Police department. Who will investigate Minnesota’s prison system and hold the legislature accountable?

Find testimonies of incarcerated people subjected to double-bunking at http://bit.ly/doublebunkingtestimonies.

Matthias Rothe is an associate professor of German and Philosophy at
the University of Minnesota
.