Prison cutbacks increase security risks for everyone, officers say

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Erosion in prison staffing is creating serious security risks for workers and the public, according to more than 250 corrections officers and allies who rallied outside Stillwater Correctional Facility Tuesday. In Stillwater, six correctional officers used to guard each unit of about 300 inmates. Now there are only four officers to do the same job, said John Hillyard, a sergeant at Stillwater and a member of AFSCME Local 600. 


Stillwater has survived two inmate uprisings this year- a sit-down in the dining area in January, and a brutal gang fight involving 70 inmates in May, Hillyard said.


“I don’t work to die,” he said. “Neither do my co-workers. We do this work for the public. All we ask for is respect and dignity – and enough officers to control this prison.”


Prisons can’t handle more cuts
The increasing risk is fallout from $68 million that Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut from the Department of Corrections, Hillyard said. It’s another reason Minnesota needs a governor like Mark Dayton, other speakers said – someone willing to raise the revenue necessary to protect core government functions.


State prisons in Moose Lake and Oak Park Heights are dealing with similar staffing shortages, said Mike Keapproth, a sergeant at the maximum-security facility in Oak Park Heights. “We’re doing everything with less, and people are going to get hurt.”


Keapproth, a member of Local 915, is also chair of AFSCME Council 5’s Corrections Policy Committee, which organized the rally. AFSCME represents 1,900 correctional officers at eight Minnesota state prisons.


St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman tied the prisons’ budget problems into the Nov. 2 governor’s race. As Pawlenty illustrates, Coleman said, there’s a difference between what candidates say and what they do. And there’s a reason public safety unions at every level of government have endorsed Mark Dayton, Coleman said.


“You have to put your money where your mouth is,” he said. “If public safety is not your priority, you should not be governor.”


 









protest at Stillwater prison
Participants in Tuesday’s demonstration included Mike Hartell of MnDOT Local 221 (above) and Chelsie Beebe (below, left) of DHS Local 390 and Erica Kantola of MnSCU Local 4001.

Photos by Michael Kuchta, courtesy of AFSCME
protest at Stillwater prison


Getting agitated inside and out
The boisterous crowd included officers from prisons in Faribault, Lino Lakes, Moose Lake, Oak Park Heights and Stillwater, as well as security counselors from the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center.


A wide range of other AFSCME locals also showed up in support. As they chanted “no more cuts” and “public safety, worker safety,” Keapproth and Hillyard gave examples of how precarious prison staffing can be.


Since 2006, Stillwater has added 400 inmates, Hillyard said. But the prison has failed to add a single correctional officer.


More than 1,000 of Stillwater’s inmates are behind bars for violent crimes, including 400 convicted of murder. Those inmates know prison staff are increasingly vulnerable, Hillyard said.


Cuts in recreation, drug treatment and other programming make the situation worse, he said. The cuts make inmates more restless and give them more time to get into trouble.


Keapproth said the state’s outsourcing of inmate medical care creates another security risk, because inmates go into the community to receive treatment. He said the Department of Corrections could improve security and efficiency if it established locked medical wards inside prisons.


This article is adapted from a story that appeared on the AFSCME Council 5 website.