At the first sign of trouble, corrections officer Joe Parise sprinted across the sprawling Oak Park Heights prison to rescue a colleague under attack.
Parise helped restrain the inmate, then returned to his station. Less than 10 minutes later, he collapsed amid a fatal medical emergency.
“You don’t go to work to die,” Tim Henderson of AFSCME Council 5 said Tuesday, somberly marking the union’s second on-duty death of a corrections officer in just two months.
Monday’s tragedy and an overall surge in violence at Minnesota state prisons have spurred union members to demand harsher punishments for inmates who assault staff members.
At a news conference, Henderson decried widespread officer shortages across the state and unprecedented low morale among personnel. He cast much of the blame on the Republican-controlled Legislature for failing to hold hearings on the matter despite repeated pleas for increased staffing.
Last year, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) said it requested state funding for 187 additional corrections officer positions to bolster security in its facilities.
“Unfortunately, the Legislature approved only 15 of those positions,” said DOC spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald, adding that the agency is committed to “doing everything possible to improve safety” for its workers.
Henderson promised to introduce another robust staffing bill this session, which union officials hope will be approved. “We don’t expect any legislative game playing or politics to be involved in that,” he said. “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”
Even still, funding will not cure the department’s recruitment and retention troubles, Henderson said. Dozens of officers have resigned in recent weeks amid concerns about safety. He hopes other Minnesotans will apply, since waiting lists of potential candidates have been exhausted.
“We need brave men and women to step up and take on these responsibilities,” he said.
The union also criticized the DOC’s less punitive segregation policy as a contributing factor in the recent uptick in violent assaults statewide. Until this spring, an offender who assaulted prison personnel faced a maximum penalty of 90 days in a segregation unit and loss of privileges.
Now, inmates serve a disciplinary sentence, then have the opportunity to enter a four-step behavioral program and regain privileges while transitioning into the general prison population.
Union leaders are demanding that offenders who attack staff be punished more severely and be resentenced in criminal court for those crimes.
The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) echoed calls for the immediate implementation of the DOC’s proposed increased penalty for assaults on staff to 270-360 days in restricted housing. MAPE supports the incentive-based process, but condemned the practice of letting offenders who physically assaulted staff out of segregation in under 90 days.
The DOC has defended its step-down programming as a “nationally recognized, balanced approach which emphasizes positive motivation techniques rather than punishing an individual for misconduct.”
The DOC has recorded 53 individual staff assaults in 2018 compared to 59 last year. But discipline convictions related to personnel assaults have surged 66 percent this year throughout the state.
Oak Park Heights remains on lockdown, as is protocol following violent attacks.
It remains unclear whether the inmate, who has not been identified, will face charges related to Parise’s death.
Jeff Beahen, president of the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association, said Parise, 37, qualifies for a full line-of-duty funeral — a procession that typically includes bagpipes and attracts up to 2,000 officers from across the state.
Beahen, who is also police chief of Rogers, said Parise’s widow has requested the procession but a date has not been set.
“Regardless of the circumstances, they lost their life while performing their duties and they will be recognized for their ultimate sacrifice,” Beahen said of fallen corrections officers.
Joseph Gomm, 45, a corrections officer from Blaine, was killed in July by an inmate serving time for homicide at the Stillwater prison. Gomm was the first Minnesota corrections officer to be killed in the line of duty.
A month before Gomm’s death, a corrections officer at Oak Park Heights was slashed repeatedly with a razor in the face, hands and scalp.
In March, 10 officers were injured in the same week after two fights broke out among inmates. All 10 were treated and released from a hospital.
A GoFundMe page has raised more than $7,500 for Parise’s family. The Navy veteran leaves behind a pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter.