Amid a startling surge in violence inside Minnesota state prisons, the corrections officers' union demanded Thursday that the Legislature fund hiring of an additional 327 uniformed staffers to bolster security.
"Every prison is dealing with staffing shortages that have put workers in danger," said Tim Henderson, associate director of AFSCME Council 5, the labor union representing 2,500 corrections officers in Minnesota. Henderson said recruiting on such a scale will increase safety for "staff and the public, which is one of our most fundamental responsibilities."
In response, the state Department of Corrections said it supports investing in more officers and other "essential positions." While the agency did not have an estimate for how much the request might cost, a previous request for 150 new officers had an estimated cost of over $10 million.
Persistent attacks by inmates on employees have in recent months injured more than a dozen officers and resulted in two on-duty deaths. Officer Joseph Gomm was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in July and Joe Parise collapsed last month after rushing to help a colleague under assault.
Union leaders say the conditions have caused morale to plummet and triggered an exodus of line staff in Stillwater and Oak Park Heights — the state's two highest-security facilities.
Come January, when the Legislature resumes, the union plans to intensify its efforts to lobby for 327 officers and 75 to 100 other staff, including licensed practical nurses, food service, clerical and maintenance workers.
The union also reiterated its fierce objection to reopening the privately owned Appleton prison, which closed in 2010 amid lagging occupancy.
House GOP members pitched the idea last spring as a common-sense solution for overcrowding in state-run correctional facilities. Appleton Mayor Chad Syltie said its closure dealt a major blow to the local economy, and relaunching it would give "a great boost" to area businesses.
But civil rights groups strongly oppose the notion, joined by corrections union members and a coalition of faith-based organizations that say the state shouldn't do business with the for-profit prison industry.
"The state hasn't been able to keep up with staffing needs in existing prisons," AFSCME said in a statement. "Reopening Appleton would stretch our correctional staffing even thinner and make safety issues worse."