Six days into his new job as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, Paul Schnell shook off his entourage and drove to the Oak Park Heights maximum-security prison.

He strolled through the security gate alone, determined to strike up frank conversations with his staff. Many were surprised by the gesture.

“Past commissioners have walked in and didn’t want to talk to anybody,” said Sgt. John Hillyard, president of the local union. “It means a lot to the officers who work behind the wall, because we feel like we’re being listened to.”

Schnell, a former police chief, succeeds Tom Roy following the department’s bloodiest year on record — one that weathered two officer deaths and a surge in staff assaults that sank morale. He’s inheriting a state agency plagued by safety concerns, a dismal retention rate and demands for change.

But for the first time in years, union leaders say they have hope. That’s because a cultural shift is brewing.

Among Schnell’s first actions was reversal of a media blackout that barred journalists from DOC facilities. Within days of his appointment, camera crews were welcomed back inside for a tour of Stillwater prison.

“It gives us an opportunity to show what we do and who we are,” said Warden Eddie Miles, who led reporters and lawmakers through the bowels of the 105-year-old prison last month.

Such unprecedented access is part of Schnell’s strategy to make people care about what happens behind the razor wire. He hopes that if legislators see critical security needs with their own eyes, they’ll be more willing to help fund solutions.

“These prisons are costly,” he said. “And we need to do everything we can to help people that are here to get out, and keep people from coming in.”

Over nearly three decades in law enforcement, Schnell developed a reputation for being charismatic and candid, even when it wasn’t in his best interest.

But there are skeptics. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, says he’s concerned that Schnell’s limited corrections experience is 25 years old. He fears Schnell will have a difficult transition from law enforcement.

“He’s got to convince senators — for confirmation at least — that he’s up to the job,” said Limmer, a former corrections officer.

The commissioner oversees a $585 million budget, 9,500 inmates and 4,300 employees. “Just the scale will be a challenge,” said Limmer, who also praised Schnell as a sincere and conscientious leader.

Schnell admits that he has much to learn, but says he understands the challenges ahead — particularly the lingering grief coupled with the sudden death of a colleague.

“I do know what it’s like to lose somebody that you work with in the line of duty. I know the impact of that on officers, on organizations,” he said. “Giving focus to officer [Joseph] Gomm and officer [Joe] Parise’s life can’t just be that they died. It has to be to lift up the nature of their work.”

Finding his way

Schnell, 57, grew up in tiny St. Nazianz, Wis., where his father was a salesman and his mother a homemaker.

He didn’t show much aptitude for sports as a teen, so he joined the school choir instead. Grades, well — “his report card was terrible. Mostly Ds,” said Julie Schnell, his wife of 31 years.

Despite his father’s declaration that college was a waste of money, Schnell pursued a bachelor’s in social work — starting on academic probation. A few years later, he became the first in his family to earn a postsecondary degree.

An internship at a halfway house for male offenders guided his next 10 years in various corrections roles, first as a case manager, then in electronic monitoring and community nonprofits.

A stint in youth programming at Carver County Court Services launched his transition to law enforcement.

Schnell made a name for himself at the St. Paul Police Department, where he quickly rose through the ranks from patrol to investigations to sex crimes. In 2003, he was named Officer of the Year, in part because he masterminded the intensive Spanish language program to help officers better communicate with the city’s growing Mexican population.

“He is a leader among his peers and respected by his colleagues,” the nomination said.

Schnell went on to serve as the department’s public information officer. He never shied away from the media. Friends continue to rib him about his affinity for being on camera.

“I don’t think it’s something anyone ever really wants to do,” said Shari Falkowski, Schnell’s former boss, who is now St. Paul’s commander of homicide. “He speaks because he knows what he’s doing is right.”

In 2010, Schnell was chosen from a field of 29 candidates for Hastings police chief, the first of three departments where he’d serve as top cop. He retired from policing seven years later, intending to be done for good.

But after only a few months, reality set in. He missed the daily grind.

A recruiter from Inver Grove Heights came calling and Schnell was hired in a 3-2 vote. Mayor George Tourville and Council Member Kara Perry dissented, the latter saying she feared he wouldn’t stick around long-term.

To Schnell’s surprise, Gov. Tim Walz chose him as corrections commissioner 13 months later.

“I wanted a professional who could gain the trust of the corrections officers, but someone who philosophically understood that it’s in our best interest to reduce recidivism and, if possible, reduce incarceration rates in the first place,” said Walz, who demanded increased transparency from his appointees. “To earn the trust of the public, we’ve got to be open — warts and all.”

A passion for progress

Schnell rises long before the sun, beginning each day with a 5-mile walk alongside his Irish wolfhound, Finn, and border collie, Welly — named after late DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone. It’s the only time of day where he’s truly unplugged.

He regularly clocks 12- to 15-hour days at the office and is always thinking about work, relatives say. At home in Mendota Heights, he plops in front of the TV and his laptop, poring over e-mails and texts.

“He doesn’t know how to stop,” said Julie Schnell. He is constantly brainstorming how to improve policies, morale and his own situation. It’s a mind-set that’s helped get them through tough times, she said.

The Schnells have four adult children. Paul Schnell Jr., 27, has spina bifida and uses an electric wheelchair. As part of his evolving care, his parents founded a 24-hour nursing company.

As police chief, Schnell made a point to work every single shift to foster relationships with staff. Since joining the DOC, he has toured prisons unannounced on nights and weekends to shake hands with employees.

During Schnell’s first visit to Oak Park Heights, he spent 2.5 hours seeking input on how to better working conditions, said Lt. Tyler Grandstand.

“He point-blank asked: ‘How can we fix it?’ ” said Grandstand, the shift supervisor on duty that day.

A stickler for respect

First on Schnell’s lengthy to-do list is bolstering security for the department.

So far, he’s testified at the Legislature about the urgent need for additional corrections officers and pledged to tweak a controversial segregation policy that a vocal contingent of staffers blamed for increased violence.

Schnell has also committed to strengthening educational programming so offenders are better prepared for employment upon their release.

“He believes that everybody deserves respect,” Julie Schnell said. “He knows that people do bad things and make mistakes, but doesn’t let those define them.”

His appointment has left many optimistic, even excited. “We lost our way,” said Hillyard, the union leader. “We’re going to put the Department of Corrections back on the map.” 612-673-4648