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Stillwater prison employees’ refusal to work in vocational area highlights safety dispute

September 7, 2018

The Minnesota Department of Corrections delayed the reopening of an industrial building on its sprawling Stillwater prison campus this week after 30 employees refused to work there, citing fears for their safety.

Corrections officers banded together to demand additional security cameras and increased staffing in the prison’s vocational workshops nearly two months after fellow officer Joseph Gomm was beaten to death by an inmate.

DOC officials vowed to indefinitely close the floor where Gomm was killed July 18 — a space where offenders could take welding and carpentry classes — but had sought to reopen a different manufacturing building Wednesday for “low-risk industry activity,” department spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald said Thursday.

Up to 18 inmates had been commissioned to fold and package Mylar balloons inside the reconfigured workshop, which would have housed 145 offenders by next week. Union members, still reeling from Gomm’s death, asked that four more officers be added to oversee the operations so no one was left patrolling the area alone. Their request was denied.

Those who refused to work in the building were reassigned to a different section of the prison.

“The staff didn’t feel they had enough officers on the floor, so they had made their concerns known,” said Tim Henderson, associate director of AFSCME Council 5, the labor union that represents 2,000 corrections officers in Minnesota. “Morale is down right now.”

As essential state employees, correctional officers are barred from striking by Minnesota law.

Security cameras were updated after the brutal attack on Gomm, but Henderson said blind spots remain. Thick concrete walls prevent radios from communicating well between floors, he said, so officers are anxious about being alone with offenders.

DOC officials have not set a projected new reopening date for industry facilities.

“The Minnesota Department of Corrections has been, and will remain in discussions with our staff and labor leaders to implement all possible and necessary safety measures to create a safe and secure work environment for all our officers, staff and inmates,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The safety of our prison facilities depends on the dedication of our corrections officers.”

Gomm’s death prompted a monthlong lockdown of the 104-year-old prison — often referred to as the DOC’s “flagship institution” — and led three officers to resign. At least 10 also took a leave of absence.

A yearly breakdown of discipline convictions obtained by the Star Tribune chronicles a 66 percent spike in overall assaults on prison personnel this year throughout the state.

As of June 30, the DOC reported 59 assaults on Stillwater staff, more than double the previous year. The maximum-security prison in Oak Park Heights saw 66 assaults in that time frame, according to the internal document.

“These offenders at Stillwater and Oak Park [Heights] are the worst of the worst,” said Henderson, who stressed that persistent technological glitches with surveillance equipment prevents staffers from feeling safe.

Employees “want everything fixed so it’s all foolproof,” he said. “Officers don’t want to be singled out in an industry area when you got all these blind spots.”

Both sides agree increased staffing remains the most critical issue to protect workers.

Over the past eight years, the DOC has pushed for additional state aid to hire 150 new corrections officers. “Unfortunately, those requests were not funded,” Fitzgerald said. Now, officials hope that on the heels of a tragedy, their request will be met with more buy-in from a polarized Legislature.

Gomm, a 45-year-old veteran officer from Blaine, became the first corrections officer in Minnesota to be killed in the line of duty.

A grand jury indicted Edward Muhammad Johnson, 42, on a charge of first-degree premeditated murder last month. Johnson was already serving a nearly 29-year sentence for the 2002 murder of his ex-girlfriend.

In the wake of Gomm’s killing, DOC Commissioner Tom Roy assured the public that his department was not “asleep at the wheel when it comes to staff safety.” But Roy defended the continued use of MINNCOR vocational programming such as carpentry and masonry, activities he claimed are proven to reduce recidivism and help develop life skills.

“The last thing we want to do is release a homeless, hungry, unskilled, dangerous person,” Roy said in July. “So we make every effort to defray those risks.”

Henderson did not dispute the benefits of industrial training, but called for a moratorium on those activities until more officers can be hired.

“We do want to put these offenders to work, but we want to do it safe and secure,” he said.

liz.sawyer@startribune.com mara.klecker@startribune.com

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