Union: State prisons closer to a blowup

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2010 - 1:01 PM

Corrections officers say the governor's cuts have left them in unsafe conditions, but Department of Corrections officials say officers have been added.

The state prison at Bayport. “If I could relate it to the I-35 bridge disaster, there are stress fractures and the system is ready to crumble,” said Mike Keapproth, an Oak Park Heights prison sergeant.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Tired of deep funding cuts at Minnesota's state prisons, union correctional officers allege a "dangerous staffing crisis" that could lead to more trouble as inmates test authority.

Concerns over adequate staffing at Stillwater prison haven't been resolved since a violent May 15 disturbance involving about 70 inmates who live in the B West cellhouse, said Jennifer Munt, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5, the union that represents about 1,900 corrections officers at Minnesota's eight state prisons.

No corrections officers were hurt in that melee.

"We figure it's just a matter of time before someone gets hurt," Munt said Monday. "The staffing shortage has created danger and puts both the staff and the public at risk."

The union plans to make its point at a news conference Tuesday at the Stillwater prison.

The Stillwater prison hasn't added "a single correctional officer" in the past several years, while the prison's population has grown by 400 inmates, the union said in a statement preceding the event. To guard 1,610 inmates, the prison has 61 officers on the day shift, 59 in the evening and only 21 overnight, the union said..

But Shari Burt, Department of Corrections (DOC) spokeswoman, said agency records show that the equivalent of 15 corrections officers were added at Stillwater since July 1, 2003. The prison's population since then has grown about 300 inmates, she said.

Munt said Gov. Tim Pawlenty forced cuts of an estimated $68 million to the DOC budget in the eight years since he took office. The cuts left a shortage of corrections officers at state prisons and also hurt some programs intended to reduce idleness and restlessness among inmates, she said.

Bruce Gordon, a Pawlenty spokesman, said the union is "playing politics" three weeks before the general election. Pawlenty consistently has said public safety is a priority, he said.

Tuesday's news conference will include an appearance by Mark Dayton, the DFL candidate for governor, who won the AFSCME endorsement.

Mike Keapproth, an Oak Park Heights prison sergeant who chairs the union's corrections policy committee, said much of the shortage is because so many officers now are needed to transport and guard inmates who need medical care in private hospitals. Prisons have had to eliminate much of their in-house medical care.

"The system is just set up to fall apart right now," Keapproth said. "If I could relate it to the I-35 bridge disaster, there are stress fractures and the system is ready to crumble. I've been working in this for 27 years and I've never seen relations between staff and inmates this bad."

Munt said the May disturbance came close to escalating into a full-blown takeover of the prison that could have led to escapes. In response, Burt said that officers quelled the disturbance within five minutes and other portions of the prison were placed on immediate lockdown to segregate the trouble.

Warden John King imposed a lockdown on the B West cellhouse, which has about 280 inmates. The lockdown continues, meaning privileges are revoked and inmates eat their meals in their housing unit instead of the dining hall.

Burt said the Corrections Department won't comment on staffing for security reasons, but acknowledges that prisons "are volatile places" and that "we respect the union's position and we value our staff."

More than 400 Stillwater inmates have been convicted of murder. Another 600 are convicted of other violent crimes such as assault, criminal sexual conduct and robbery.

"Over the years, we have observed that offenders have become more impulsive and more violent," Burt said.

In the most recent measurement, Minnesota had one officer per 4.7 inmates, compared to the national average of one officer per 7.5 inmates, she said.

The DOC has added the full-time equivalent of 230 correctional officers to the state prison payroll since July 1, 2002, Burt said.

Keapproth said those numbers are skewed because of expansions of prisons at Faribault and Rush City and don't accurately represent conditions at Stillwater and Oak Park Heights.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342

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