No handshakes. No hugs. No physical touch — even in a time of grief.
For the past eight years, unsanctioned contact between inmates at the Shakopee women’s prison has carried with it the possibility of a trip to solitary confinement.
Now, under pressure from advocacy groups like the ACLU, the Minnesota Department of Corrections is quietly changing Shakopee’s restrictive “no-touch” policy — a practice critics call cruel and unconstitutional.
The DOC has long denied that the policy even exists, but department handbooks and other training documents obtained by the Star Tribune show that the facility forbids all touching regardless of the context — even something as fleeting as a high-five. The protocols were not enforced at any of the men’s prisons, only the institution for women, despite the fact that most are serving time for nonviolent crimes.
Administrators say they implemented the rules when Shakopee was seeing a rise in inappropriate and, sometimes, nonconsensual sexual conduct between prisoners. Their response? Eliminate touching of any kind.
“It wasn’t a healthy policy,” DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said Friday. “Over time, those things have become antiquated.”
Shortly after his appointment in January, Schnell began hearing complaints from volunteers and activists about no-touch restrictions. Current and former inmates complained that corrections officers often failed to distinguish between innocuous gestures like a pat on the back and those of a sexual nature. Several inmates told the Star Tribune that they feared fixing a roommate’s hair or assisting someone who had fallen because some officers used the policy as an excuse to dole out punishment.
“We heard that basic compassion was not able to be demonstrated,” Schnell said. He believes the upcoming change, to be implemented in mid-July, will foster a “more humane environment.”
Shakopee Warden Tracy Beltz outlined a set of draft protocols on “appropriate touch” in a recent internal memo. The note came three months after an ACLU lawyer filed a strongly worded data request for all materials on the “no touch policy.”
Under new guidelines, inmates will be permitted to fist bump, shake hands and give high-fives. Hugs will remain off limits.
“Given this is a significant change for offenders, and for staff, I would ask every supervisor to review, discuss [and suggest modifications],” Beltz wrote in a June 17 e-mail, adding that the facility has “been moving in this direction for some time.”
Prisoners are permitted a brief hug and kiss on the cheek at the beginning and end of each visit from a family member. And parents are allowed to hold children under 9 on their laps.
But not everyone is lucky enough to have regular visitors.
That means some inmates have gone weeks, months or even years without experiencing any physical affection, and perhaps physical contact of any kind.
“We know that as human beings, touch is an essential part of how we communicate and connect,” said Rebecca Shlafer, a pediatrics professor at the University of Minnesota who works with incarcerated mothers.
Just as infants are soothed by being held, adults are psychologically supported by being embraced by those they care about, she said. “The absence of physical touch is really devastating for social and emotional well-being.”
An environment devoid of touch can be especially difficult for women who have recently given birth, advocates say.
While serving 17 months at Shakopee on a burglary conviction, Lisa Pederson found herself breaking the rules for a cellmate who’d just returned from the hospital, devastated about leaving her newborn. Pederson says she waited until officers had conducted their rounds, then helped the woman bind her breasts with bandages to suppress lactation.
Even the smallest act of kindness was risky, she said.
“It’s painful to watch and goes against everything in our human nature — regardless of whether you have a criminal history or not.”
A few months later, Pederson’s mother came to visit and disclosed a terminal cancer diagnosis. Unable to process the idea that she might not see her mother alive before her release, Pederson shared the news with a close friend. The woman reached under the table and clasped Pederson’s hand for a few seconds. It was a brief, heartfelt display of empathy.
“You make that choice [knowing you] might go to seg,” Pederson said, using prison slang for solitary.
Pederson’s mother died in 2018, 14 months after she was granted supervised release.
However controversial it became, the no-touch policy was born out of a desire for heightened sensitivity toward a population with high levels of trauma and sexual exploitation, Beltz said.
An audit by the Bureau of Justice Statistics around 2011 found that sexual misconduct between prisoners at Shakopee was among the highest in the nation, she said. Those results so alarmed her that she immediately instituted a “hands-off” policy, meant to be temporary.
The policy remained in place for years as corrections staff explored how to balance the unique needs of female prisoners with the concerns of those who insisted they didn’t want to be touched, said Beltz.
“It’s more complex than people think it is,” said Beltz, who has run the women’s prison for 11 years.
Although sexual violence among prisoners is typically more common at men’s prisons, Beltz said interviews with Shakopee inmates at the time indicated that many women were in unhealthy codependent relationships that they were unsure how to escape.
Earlier this year, the prison began providing personal hygiene products at no cost so women wouldn’t feel pressured to couple up with someone who could buy them items from the commissary.
Beltz denied inmates’ claims that they are sometimes punished for minor touch offenses, saying that solitary confinement records don’t support those allegations. The DOC could not immediately supply those records.
“There aren’t women going to segregation for doing one another’s hair,” she maintained. “They’re going to discipline because they’re engaging in inappropriate sexual activity.”
“To this day, I think we did the right thing.”
Nonetheless, Beltz said she supports rolling back the policy. She plans to implement the new measures before she transfers to Faribault prison Aug. 1, part of a wave of warden shake-ups statewide. Faribault Warden Kathy Halvorson will trade places with her.
Advocates believe the shift will be a positive change for incarcerated women.
“It’s incumbent upon us to be mindful of the environment we’re creating,” Schnell said. “We’ve learned that having basic human contact is part of the human experience.”