Safety was not going to be an issue in a small hearing room Tuesday morning.
Packed with dark-shirted correctional officers, and with another full room of officers listening in an adjacent room, the House Corrections Division heard a plea to increase the ranks of those tasked with guarding some of the state’s most violent people.
Held over for possible omnibus bill inclusion was HF1315, sponsored by Rep. Jack Considine (DFL-Mankato) that would add 328 full-time equivalent corrections officers over the next four years. Sponsored by Rep. Dan Wolgamott (DFL-St. Cloud), HF1615 was also held over. It seeks to add an additional 176 full-time equivalent support and clinical staff in the 2020-21 biennium.
Two corrections officers have died in the line of duty within the past year. Joseph Gomm was killed by a Stillwater Prison inmate in July 2018. Two months later, Joe Parise suffered a medical emergency while on duty after responding to fellow officers being attacked at the Oak Park Heights Prison.
“We’ve neglected to get the officers we’ve needed in the past. It is very disappointing that we had to have a loss of life before we acted on it,” said John Hillyard, president of AFSCME Local 600 and a corrections sergeant at the Stillwater facility.
But prison safety is more than guarding inmates.
Staff who maintain facilities, teach technical and academic skills, and provide medical care, treatment and counseling, are as necessary for a prison to meet safety and recidivism reduction goals as the officers required to manage inmates.
“When they [prisons] are short staffed in an area, offenders know where to go and what to do to get away with it,” said Richard Kolodziejski, public affairs and communications director at the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.
Adequate staffing in all positions would ensure inmates are kept engaged with activities that prepare them for reintroduction back into communities with the skills necessary to succeed. Creating scenarios where basic facility and programming needs can be met also creates a safer environment for both inmates and staff.
The number of staff and areas to be filled through the proposal was created by working with the Department of Corrections, Wolgamott explained. Planning for phasing additional staff into facilities is expected once the fiscal note is available.
In his budget request, Gov. Tim Walz seeks an additional $20.46 million in Fiscal Year 2020 and almost $24.82 million in Fiscal Year 2021 “to help ensure the security and safety of the State’s prisons and DOC employees including the addition of security personnel and staff in other roles that directly contribute to overall security and safety, critical infrastructure and physical plant needs, continuation of the restrictive housing initiative, and investment in essential technology modernization projects.”
Included in his biennial request is:
Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) sponsors SF1670, a companion to Considine’s bill, that awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public safety Finance and Policy Committee. Wolgamott’s bill has no Senate companion.