Behind towering razor wire and clanking metal doors, Minnesota lawmakers got a firsthand look into the dangers associated with operating a state prison.

The unprecedented legislative hearing at Stillwater prison on Wednesday comes as the Department of Corrections is reeling from the deadliest year in the agency's history.

The formal hearing was intended to build support for additional funding to bolster staffing and increase safety for corrections officers and prisoners amid a surge of assaults.

"To do your job effectively, you have to feel safe and comfortable. With a partner, you always feel safer," testified Sgt. John Hillyard, a veteran corrections officer. "Joe [Gomm] was by himself. And it will be our responsibility to make sure no officer is by himself when he's attacked or injured again."

Gomm was bludgeoned to death by an inmate in the prison's industrial area last July. Two months later, Officer Joe Parise died of a medical emergency shortly after sprinting to rescue a colleague under attack at the Oak Park Heights maximum-security prison. Their deaths punctuated an overall increase in staff assaults that led morale to plummet.

Newly appointed Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell has vowed to make safety his top priority — along with reducing the swelling prison population. Days into his new job, he coordinated with the newly formed House corrections subcommittee to organize the public hearing inside Stillwater prison's gymnasium.

On Wednesday, seven state representatives were ushered through metal detectors and escorted to the gym, where they gathered behind a makeshift dais on the scuffed basketball court.

Amid pleas for 327 additional uniformed officers from the corrections union, legislators spent two hours hearing testimony about the resources needed to keep both officers and offenders safe.

The hearing came two weeks after several House Democrats toured the prison in preparation for the hearing. Officers locked down the cell blocks so lawmakers could move freely into the segregation unit, cafeteria and library.

Schnell anticipates technology upgrades to improve sightlines in known blind spots and communication between cell blocks.

Corrections staff said they are committed to offering inmates educational programming like GED and college courses, but can't safely run those programs when they don't have enough officers to monitor them in large groups.

Short staffing sometimes leads to forced overtime and, ultimately, burnout.

"You miss birthdays, you miss anniversaries. A lot of times, you're not even off on Christmas," said Jeff Vars, head of the officers union at Oak Park Heights. "That puts undue stress on families."

Controversial changes to the department's segregation policy may also be revisited in coming months.

Before 2016, inmates who assaulted officers faced a maximum two-year segregation sentence. Amid a national push for reduced time in restrictive housing and after a Star Tribune investigation on the effects of prisoner isolation, the DOC transitioned last March to an experimental four-step behavioral program that allows offenders to more quickly regain privileges.

A vocal contingent of DOC staffers lamented that the policy was implemented without staff input and made prisoners more dangerous.

"That program was doomed to fail when it started, and my officers were the ones who paid the price," Hillyard told the committee.

Schnell echoed that sentiment: "It could've and should've been done differently."

Though the DOC has not yet made its formal funding request, officials say it will include an appeal for dozens of new hires.

Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, plans to introduce the "Joseph Gomm bill" this session to honor the late officer's sacrifice by specifically funding additional line officers throughout the DOC system.

"It's clear to me that our state has not done enough to invest in the safety and security of our correctional facilities," said Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud. "And it breaks my heart that the lack of investment has led to tragedy."

Previous funding requests have not been successful at the Capitol. But this year, the proposal is likely to be met with more bipartisan support, said Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

However, Limmer says he is troubled by the agency's dismal retention rate and inability to hire for approximately 86 open positions.

"If this department can't hire 86 people with an existing budget, how are they going to fill it with 300 more openings?" he said.

Officers have met with Limmer privately to express their concerns about compensation packages failing to keep pace with county corrections, arguing that pay is no longer competitive within the field.

On Wednesday, representatives with the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a group of activists inside and outside prison, lambasted the commissioner's decision not to allow any prisoners the opportunity to testify.

Only one offender — a member of the inmate-run newspaper — was permitted to watch the hearing. "There's a lot of frustration," said Lennell Maurice Martin, senior editor of the Prison Mirror. "A small percentage of the population actually commits the assaults, but there's no concern [by administrators] for the reason why."

Schnell acknowledged that critics may think it was an attempt to silence opposing voices, but assured committee members his decision was grounded in security concerns.

As a compromise, Considine will hold a listening session next week with a few dozen Stillwater inmates.

The hearing was recorded via livestream for civilians, who were watching from a building across the street. Only corrections staff, legislative aides and media members who had undergone background checks were permitted to enter the secure facility.

Afterward, lawmakers walked over to join them for a question-and-answer session.

Philip Holmes, a former Stillwater inmate turned criminal justice reform advocate, asked that elected officials bring back the DOC ombudsman to help investigate prisoner complaints. Since the position dissolved in 2003, offenders have been forced to rely on an internal grievance system, which few trust to fairly resolve their issues.

Committee members supported that approach: "I have a bill waiting on my desk," Considine said with a smile.

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648