The state women’s prison at Shakopee is the only institution of its type in the entire nation that is not fenced off to prevent escapes.
That is one major point the state will make to lawmakers in the coming legislative session as it seeks, in the wake of yet another successful breakout, to secure the millions needed to install one.
John Schadl, chief spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, was questioned about the escape of Angel Lynn Benjamin, 25, and its wider implications.
Here’s what he had to say:
Q: How did this happen?
A: At 6:54 p.m. [a week ago Monday], a number of offenders were doing a controlled movement back to a living unit when an officer saw her run off to the perimeter.
He immediately notified the watch command and they activated the emergency system, and he began to pursue. She was able to leave the grounds, cross 10th Street, and at that point we notified Shakopee police, who began a search.
She was found 23 minutes later, hiding under a hedge or bush outside a residence.
Q: Was she a violent offender?
A: I don’t believe so; she was with us because of a felony charge of escape from custody [from a hospital stay] while being held in Hennepin County on another violation. [She was just admitted to Shakopee in late November.]
Q: Do you expect this incident to help propel your long-standing request for funds to fence in the prison?
A: What we can say is that this has been a departmental priority for bonding funds for several legislative sessions, and I know both former Gov. [Tim] Pawlenty and Gov. [Mark] Dayton supported it. It will be going into the hopper. I talked to the governor’s office and they told me he is very supportive of the project.
Q: Online, it is listed as your department’s top individual request, after a blanket, departmentwide $40 million ‘ask’ for asset preservation — things like maintenance of roofs. Yet neighbors say there has never been any serious episode following an escape. What’s the case to be made to the contrary?
A: The offender who escaped was level three, the same as our facility at Lino Lakes, which has a razor-topped fence. This is the only facility in the country that houses medium-level security offenders and above with no fence.
Q: Neighbors have always said they were promised that no Soviet-style gulag would ever appear in their midst, and in fact visually the current facility reminds a lot of casual passers-by of a middle school. You’ve promised a stylish, Ivy League-style wall that’s in keeping with its surroundings. Does that offer the same security?
A: What it offers is a delay. It would be quite difficult to climb the fence we propose. Quite likely an offender won’t even attempt to run.
Q: Have there been meaningful changes in your circumstances since any initial promises to neighbors were made?
A: Shakopee was built in 1986, and built amid severe budget constraints. We then had 90 offenders. I believe we’re at about 550 right now [having been as high as 644 last April]. Less than 100 was a size of group that was a lot easier keep track of than what we have today.