Perspectives from within
The Minnesota Department of Corrections staff shortage is contributing to prison conditions that are unacceptable and more dangerous.
I have been incarcerated since 2004, my last five years at Minnesota Correctional Facility—Rush City. When I first arrived, I was given an overnight job within a week. I was grateful for that opportunity to work and earn money.
Then, Covid hit the prison shortly afterward. I was given a job in the kitchen and worked in the kitchen throughout the entire pandemic. Now it takes more than eight months to obtain a job at Rush City. How is this acceptable for rehabilitation?
Religious programs are almost nonexistent, especially for the Native American faith. However, I do follow the Native cultural ways of my Indigenous ancestors. There have been five sweat lodges in four years here at Rush City.
To add insult to injury, a scheduled pipe and drum ceremony was set for Indigenous Peoples Day on October 9 but was canceled. The prison chaplain stated that the “executive team directed him to cancel Native services, since no outside volunteer.” Previously, the chaplain had been facilitating.
Before Covid, visiting days were Thursday through Sunday, with 30 hours per month for all prisoners. Prisoners who receive visitors have substantially lower recidivism rates and it affects prisoners’ MnSTARR (DOC’s recidivism risk-assessment system). Visits are also beneficial for mental health. Getting out of the unit and visiting family and friends offers relief for a few hours.
Currently visiting days are only Thursdays and Sundays. It is understandable that there is not enough staff to cover the visiting room on Thursdays and Sundays. But why are we on modified lockdown on Fridays and Saturdays with no visits?
I have written asking whether Friday and Saturday visiting hours are coming back now that Covid is over. The [response from Rush City administration] cited staffing shortages and that we have video visits available.
Video visits with inmates are available, However, if a family cannot afford a laptop, they cannot schedule a visit from a mobile phone. Additionally, any restrictions on prisoner visitations—no contact with individuals or minors—essentially restrict many prisoners from video visits.
The limit of $40 on canteen purchases has been in place for 18 months and is due to staff shortages at Minnesota Correctional Facility—Oak Park Heights, according to officials. The $40 canteen limit has contributed to overweight prisoners, diabetics buying unhealthy food items, and high-stress levels in the population.
Thankfully, education programs are slowly returning, because of Restorative Justice, House of Healing. However, the classes at Rush City are limited to one time a year, with 20-25 participants at most.
There is no gym for 2- East, which is an all-workers unit that hasn’t had yard in a month. There is no consistent barber, as we are allowed only one haircut per month. There have not been any college classes offered in over 18 months. We haven’t been to the chow hall in over three years. Why? Staff shortages.
Medical needs to be overhauled. It takes years to see a provider. I personally waited three years to renew my eye prescription. I waited 16 months to see the doctor for a routine checkup.
In October, a prisoner had an epileptic seizure in 2 East. The staff sat back and watched as prisoners jumped in to assist the man. One staff member even ran in the unit, pepper spray in hand saying, “Get off of him!” It is sad that trained DOC staff could not differentiate between a medical emergency and a fight.
Mental health is desperately needed here at Rush City, as 80 percent of the population is on special housing unit status. Being locked in with another person for 22 hours a day is unacceptable and inhumane.
The only help is the handout packets from mental health staff. A prisoner-mentor job position could add two jobs in every unit. Mentors could do basic mental health checks with fellow prisoners.
Free calls per state law, (Public Safety Omnibus Bill 2023), effective July 1, was a massive accomplishment for Minnesota prisoners. It feels good to be able to call mom, dad or grandma to check in and not worry about whose nickel it is on.
However, it appears there is an unwritten policy or exception to the rule. Lawmakers gave inmates free calls, but we are on lockdown because of staffing shortages. It may be just a ploy to lobby for more funds for the Minnesota Department of Corrections in the next budget. They do not need more funds. They need a change in leadership and culture.
New leadership, more jobs and programs for prisoners, medical care, and simply treating inmates with dignity and respect will go a long way.
Ninety-five percent of Minnesota prisoners will return to your community. We should all want people coming out of prisons to be better off, not worse off than when they went in.
In strength and spirit.
The Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee is a union of prisoners, ex-prisoners, families, and communities working to transform the justice system in MN.