Dealing with a current $10 million budget cut, Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian has made an impassioned pitch about the perils of slicing any more funding to a prison system that houses 9,700 of the state's most violent and dangerous offenders.

In the last six years it has had $85 million in operational cuts and reduced staff by over 300 positions. Double bunking to save money at prisons in St. Cloud and Stillwater have proved problematic. Cuts in recreation time for prisoners has led to violence, according to the department.

Unlike other state agencies, the prison system can't have a waiting list because courts determine who gets sent to prison and it can't reduce its hours, Fabian said at a recent legislative hearing.

"Every day you read about the predator and violent offenses that happen on the streets," Fabian told a Senate budget committee. "When a prison sentence is imposed, it might be a change in what is happening in the streets, but they all come to prison and we deal with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

To make her point, Fabian presented video footage taken from prison security cameras, showing a guard head-butted unprovoked, another guard sprayed with hot water and honey and then assaulted, and inmate fights in cell block areas where responding guards are armed with nothing more than a chemical irritant, all for a starting salary of about $30,000 a year.

"In most other agencies, a lack of adequate personnel and resources is not going to result in someone getting stabbed in the back or beaten up," Fabian told the committee, which watched in silence. "Real people are working in these positions and it is real dangerous."

With a general fund budget of $472 million, Minnesota's eight prisons ranks 48th in the nation in how much it costs per inmate, largely because it has adopted a policy of locking up only the most serious offenders. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed a 1.7 percent increase in Corrections' budget, and legislators now are working on reshaping the governor's proposal to their liking. Wisconsin, in contrast, has 36 prisons and houses over 22,000 prisoners with a $1.2 billion budget.

"I think you are getting a real good deal," Fabian told the committee.

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636