The Minnesota Legislature apparently didn’t believe last year that state prisons needed more security personnel and guards. We hope the recent tragic deaths of two guards killed in altercations with inmates will now get the Legislature’s attention.
It’s a troubling trend, and the Republican-majority Legislature had a chance to protect the safety of prison personnel had it approved the Department of Corrections’ request last year for 187 additional correction officer positions. The Legislature approved just 15 of the positions, according to the Star Tribune.
The DOC has requested more officers for years to deal with a growing, and increasingly violent, prison population. The Minnesota prison population has spiked about 150 percent since the 1990s, with about 40 percent of the jump coming from 2000 to 2008, according to the department.
A recent study by Pew Charitable Trust showed Minnesota to be an outlier in terms of prison population rate increases in the last 10 years. While the national average was down 11 percent, Minnesota’s rate was up 1 percent. Only 11 other states had an increase.
The tragedies, unfortunately, should put an exclamation point on the request for more corrections officers. Officer Joe Parise died on duty at Oak Park Heights prison after helping another guard who was being attacked by an inmate. He died of a medical emergency after helping. Corrections officer Joseph Gomm, 45, was killed at the hands of a prisoner working in a shop area. Gomm was beaten with a hammer and stabbed with a knife.
A month before Gomm’s death, another guard at Oak Park Heights was slashed by an inmate with a razor. In March, 10 officers were injured in two fights that broke out at the prison.
Gomm’s family members told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the officer feared for his life every day he went to work. Officers have been aware of the safety risk for some time.
Unions representing the inmates say the Department of Corrections should also reinstitute tougher penalties for inmates who attack officers. In the past, inmates were automatically confined to segregated sections for 90 days after assaulting a guard or other personnel. That was recently changed to a punitive sentence and then the opportunity for a four-step program to regain privileges.
It seems a move back to tougher disciplinary sentences is reasonable.
The Legislature can prevent the risk of further violence against guards by approving the reasonable request of the Department of Corrections to keep enough corrections personnel on hand to protect its guards and fulfill the mission of the prisons to protect society and rehabilitate inmates when appropriate.
Guard safety, as we have seen, must be taken seriously. It is a life-or-death situation.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE MANKATO FREE PRESS