The Minnesota Department of Corrections will close the industry building where a Stillwater corrections officer was killed by an inmate last week, one of several security changes the state’s prison system plans to make in the wake of the slaying.
DOC Commissioner Tom Roy laid out the move the day after Joseph Gomm was buried with full honors. Gomm, 45, a 16-year-veteran officer from Blaine, is the first corrections officer in Minnesota to be killed in the line of duty.
Edward Muhammad Johnson, who is serving a nearly 29-year sentence for second-degree murder, is accused of stabbing and beating Gomm to death July 18 in a vocational building, where offenders take welding classes. Roy, who was still visibly shaken, said the industrial shop is a protected crime scene and “will not continue operation until we do a full assessment of that building.”
“I think it’s fair to say the floor that Officer Gomm was killed in will not be utilized within this administration,” he said during a Friday news conference.
Though other prisons throughout the state have resumed normal functions since the attack, the Stillwater correctional facility remains on lockdown out of an abundance of caution for staff, Roy said. He hopes the 104-year-old prison — often referred to as the DOC’s “flagship institution" — will soon return to normal. But on Thursday, Stillwater recorded another employee assault when an inmate threw urine at a corrections officer.
Three officers have resigned and at least 10 have taken a leave of absence following Gomm’s death.
“We have staff that are significantly struggling,” Roy said. “This is a time of recovery.”
There are now 329 uniformed staff members at Stillwater and a population of 1,594 inmates — a ratio of 4.8 offenders per staff member. Roy confirmed they were short one corrections manufacturing specialist in the industrial area on the day Gomm, who was alone at the time, was killed.
He declined to say whether there were security cameras in that part of the prison.
Roy said that expanding cameras and Wi-Fi to enable livestreaming of surveillance video is among the prison’s top initiatives. He reiterated that funding from the Legislature is vital for making such changes — staffing in particular. As he does every year, he plans to make a detailed presentation on the DOC’s needs to lawmakers. An analysis by the National Institute of Corrections concluded that the agency was short-staffed by about 150 people.
“Legislative interest will be more acute,” said Roy, who recently met with Gov. Mark Dayton to express budget concerns.
Union asks for resources
AFSCME Council 5, the labor union representing corrections officers in Minnesota, blasted Roy’s response and the Legislature’s inaction. The union said state officials “have not communicated with us about the safety measures presented today nor given us an opportunity to work with them to find solutions.”
“We have dangerously low numbers of correctional officers, levels that are far worse than the statistics reported by DOC today. This is unacceptable,” the statement said. The union demanded bipartisan support to provide them with the adequate staffing, “tools, resources and policies we need to do our job and to keep our institutions and the public safe.”
Meanwhile, nearly 3,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for Roy’s resignation in response to what critics decry “an alarming increase in staff assaults” over the last six months. So far in 2018, the DOC has reported 46 assaults on personnel.
In June, a correctional officer at the maximum-security prison in Oak Park Heights was seriously injured during an altercation that threw the facility into lockdown. The officer fought back and was assisted by other guards. And earlier this year at Oak Park Heights, several officers were injured during two fights in the span of just a few days. Ten staff members were seen at the hospital and released.
Roy told reporters Friday that he respects public criticism, but doesn’t plan to step down.
“We have not been asleep at the wheel when it comes to staff safety,” he recalled assuring legislators. “It’s a daily concern for us.”
In the meantime, vocational programming like carpentry and masonry, activities Roy says are proven to reduce recidivism, will continue at DOC facilities to help offenders develop life skills.
“The last thing we want to do is release a homeless, hungry, unskilled, dangerous person,” Roy said. “So we make every effort to defray those risks.”
Suspect had violent history
Johnson, the 42-year-old inmate accused of killing Gomm, has racked up 1,695 days in segregation for numerous offenses since his 2003 murder conviction. But after two years of relatively good behavior, he earned a spot working in the industrial building.
He was set to be released from prison in late 2022 and then serve the balance of his sentence on supervised release. However, a conviction for Gomm’s death could keep him behind bars for the rest of his life.
“Sometimes those offenders who lose hope really don’t care how they conduct themselves,” Roy said.
Johnson was moved to the more restrictive Oak Park Heights following the attack. He has a long history of violence that includes a 2002 assault of a Hennepin County deputy.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who’s prosecuted about 150 inmates for assaults — most of them against corrections officers — said he intends to seek the sternest possible punishment for Johnson.
“We will not let Joseph Gomm die in vain,” his union brothers and sisters said Friday. “We want to ensure that every person who works in corrections can come home safely, and that we can keep our institutions and communities safe.