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Audit: Minnesota prison safety suffers due to guard shortage

ST. PAUL— The safety of inmates and staff at Minnesota’s state prisons has suffered due to chronic shortages of correctional officers and a corresponding reliance on having existing officers work overtime, the Office of the Legislative Auditor said Wednesday.

The audit was prompted by a spike in assaults by prisoners against staff that peaked in 2018 but has since declined. Those incidents included a fatal attack against a corrections officer at the Stillwater prison in July 2018.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who took office in January 2019, said he fully concurred with the auditors’ findings and recommendations. The report highlighted the need for better data collection about violent events, staffing shortages, overtime and disciplinary action against prisoners. Better data could lead to better safety practices, it said.

“This audit was born out of tragedy,” Schnell wrote in a response to Legislative Auditor James Nobles. “Action on the recommendations you present, along with agency initiatives currently underway, is an opportunity to develop the Minnesota Department of Corrections into a national leader on data-driven safety and security practices that supports transformation of lives for a safer Minnesota.”

The report blames the shortage of correctional officers on high turnover. The Stillwater prison, alone, had an average shortage of 25 correctional officers below its authorized maximum of 314 in fiscal 2019. Although new hires were similar to past years, they weren’t enough to fill the vacancies.

Because of those shortages, the department almost quadrupled the amount of overtime officers worked between 2014 and 2019.

Another finding was that sexual offenses are frequent by prisoners against female staff, including catcalls, verbal threats of sexual assault and masturbating in front of them.

“Female staff said some supervisors and coworkers expect them to tolerate this behavior, and that prisoners frequently receive no disciplinary consequences,” the report contends.

One in three prison staffers surveyed reported that bullying and sexual harassment between staffers is a pervasive problem, and that many staff don’t believe their coworkers or supervisors take the problem seriously, according to the report.

Another issue identified in the report was “outdated and unsafe” design features at the St. Cloud and Stillwater prisons, which were built more than 100 years ago. The dangers include falling or being pushed over railings that are several stories above the main floor, and layouts that make it difficult for guards to monitor inmates. The auditors recommended that the department develop a long-range plan for rehabilitating or replacing the living units at the two old prisons.

“At some point, the state will have to substantially reinvest in these prisons if it is to keep using them,” the report said.

Gov Tim Walz’s proposed public construction borrowing package includes $45.5 million for asset preservation at correctional facilities, including security upgrades, but the department’s maintenance backlog totals $595 million.

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