Bigger, safer, stronger: A prison for the future

  • Updated: September 30, 2008 - 11:33 PM

The Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault - with new living quarters, high-tech security and a remodeled "senior" unit - will soon become Minnesota's largest prison.

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Construction workers made their way into the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault grounds to work on updating some of the buildings. The challenge has been daunting for the state Department of Corrections: Many of the dozens of buildings on the 140-acre campus weren’t fire-safe, and officers often had to maneuver narrow stairwells along with inmates they guarded in old building

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES, Star Tribune

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FARIBAULT, MINN. - From where Toinette Gliem sits she can watch all four wings inside one of Faribault prison's new living units. Computer technology allows her to lock and unlock doors, explore corners of the wings with video cameras, even switch lights and water on and off. ¶ "There's a lot more control," said Gliem, 25, who works at computers designed to detect trouble. "It's just good all around. It's safer for the inmates, it's safer for the staff."

Because of legislative appropriations totaling $129 million over the past three years, this sprawling medium-security institution in southeast Minnesota is rapidly transforming into the state's largest prison, already rivaling Stillwater. New, more secure buildings are opening while others are being remodeled or razed.

As the landscape of this former hospital for the developmentally disabled changes, the Minnesota Department of Corrections has begun shifting an additional 600 inmates to Faribault. By the end of 2009, the prison will house 2,025 men.

"In our old buildings, we had four, six, eight guys [per room] in some of those dormitories," said Connie Roehrich, Faribault's warden. "Too many people, too many problems."

Many of the new inmates will come from Prairie Correctional Facility, a private prison in Appleton, Minn., where the state rents about 770 beds because of crowding at the state's eight adult prisons, said David Crist, the DOC's assistant commissioner of facilities services.

When the 140-acre Faribault campus became a prison in 1989, many of the 40 buildings were dilapidated and dangerous for corrections officers. When construction and demolition end next year, the prison will have about 20 remaining buildings, many of them new.

Gliem's high-tech K-3 building, shaped like the letter K, is one of three of identical size that opened this spring. A fourth K building will open soon. The prison also has other living units, including a minimum-security dormitory outside the security fence, and Linden, a remodeled "senior" unit for older and disabled prisoners.

One of the disabled inmates is William Myears, 30, convicted of murdering a 24-year-old Brainerd woman in 2002. Because of a neurological ailment that paralyzed his legs a couple of years ago, Myears uses a wheelchair. After remodeling began on the Linden unit, he was transferred to K-3, which has adapted cells for people with disabilities.

"I do very well here," said Myears, who has nine years remaining on his sentence. "I am going to hopefully stay here because everything was built here for people with certain needs. I would prefer to stay here."

High-tech security

It's early afternoon at Faribault prison. The streets are empty on the 140-acre campus except for officers scooting past on golf carts. Three officers wearing rubber gloves lead a hulking handcuffed inmate in blue pajamas down a sidewalk. This is "count" time at Faribault, when officers lock up every inmate to make sure nobody's given them the slip. Within an hour, the streets again fill with inmates on their way to jobs, the clinic and the dining hall.

These are mostly men who have decided they've had enough of prison, Crist said. "They're tired of wasting their lives," he said, and want to return to their families. Many of them, however, have lived at Faribault prison long enough to think of it as home.

Because of the surge of construction money, the prison looks much different than it did even two years ago.

The old food service building -- a crowded, troubled place -- has been remodeled into the prison's gleaming new health services building where pills are dispensed, teeth are pulled and doctors tend to a gamut of illnesses.

Nearby, the new food service building accommodates four times as many inmates as the old one. It has features such as "blind" serving windows to prevent eye contact and therefore favoritism and bullying, and dividing walls to isolate trouble in the event of a disturbance. Several officers converge there at meal times to watch over the dining room, because when full, it seats 632 inmates.

"No discussions here about what's on your tray. You get what comes out," Roehrich said. "You don't pick and choose your buddy, your table."

The state's commitment to upgrading the prison is evident in the stark contrast between the K units and a former hospital building being torn down nearby.

The old Redwood building, a relic from the mental hospital era, housed 250 men but had hundreds of blind corners. Fire danger -- and no running water -- meant prisoners couldn't be locked in their rooms. Officers had to navigate stairwells with the men they guarded and often were out of view of fellow officers.

That's not the case in K-3, where floor officers watch inmates under pools of white light. Officers in individual wings can see each other through reinforced glass. Each wing houses 104 men. Gliem, at the hub, can lock all the doors in one wing from her computer if officers need to leave their posts to help their colleagues.

"They all can pay attention to each other so it's much more of a team sort of atmosphere, taking care of each other," Roehrich said. "For officers, it's a whole different sense from how it used to be in our other buildings."

Technology being installed at Faribault is similar to new technology at other Minnesota prisons, even supermax Oak Park Heights, which houses the state's most dangerous inmates, said Lynn Dingle, the DOC's deputy commissioner for facilities. The difference is the degree of security.

More inmates, more beds

At least for a couple of years, Faribault's expansion will take pressure off Minnesota's prisons and reduce the state's reliance on the private prison at Appleton.

"It's not new to us," said Steve Owen, a spokesman for Corrections Corp. of America, which runs the Appleton prison. The company will fill the beds of departing Minnesota inmates with federal prisoners or prisoners from other states, he said.

Crist said that Minnesota's prison population is expected to rise again after 2010, but the Faribault project creates much-needed space for medium-security inmates.

"The prison's been a good neighbor," said Chuck Ackman, mayor of the city of 22,800. "It kept some good jobs in Faribault. Stable jobs, stable employment."

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554

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