Minnesota prisons resort to periodic lockdowns due to staff shortage

A guard patrols the cells
A guard patrols the cells at Minnesota Correctional Facility - Oak Park Heights in Oak Park Heights, Minnesota, on Aug. 11.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2022

The state prison at Faribault is in the midst of having periodic lockdowns due to staffing shortages. During the lockdowns, inmates are kept in their cell blocks. Faribault is down 42 corrections officers. It’s worse at Stillwater state prison, where the facility’s complement of officers is down by 62.

Data from the Department of Corrections shared with MPR News shows as of Monday, the agency is short 211 correctional officers, or 12 percent of what is budgeted. Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to explain what is happening inside Minnesota’s prisons.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: The state prison at Faribault is in the midst of needing to have periodic lockdowns, where inmates are kept in their cell blocks. And it's because of staffing shortages. Faribault is down 42 corrections officers. It's worse at Stillwater State Prison, where that facility's complement of officers is down by 62.

Data from the Department of Corrections shared with MPR News shows as of yesterday the agency is short 211 correctional officers or about 12% of what is budgeted. Add to that problem crumbling prison facilities, which has led the governor to ask for more than $81 million in bonding money to make some fixes. Joining us to explain what's happening inside our state's prisons is the Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell. Commissioner, thanks for the time.

PAUL SCHNELL: Good afternoon, Cathy, thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Let's talk about staffing. What is going on? Those are pretty stark numbers, down by 62 officers at Stillwater and Faribault is down 42 corrections officers. What's happening?

PAUL SCHNELL: Well, the numbers certainly are concerning, but this is actually a reflection of good news. The numbers were far worse than this. Last year, the state negotiated new contracts with the union representing our correctional officers, which resulted in substantial increases. So now, wages are more competitive with county jail and Federal Bureau of Prisons counterparts. And we're seeing our numbers change. So our hiring has actually increased.

Now, we're still on the upturn, but with the number of officers in current training and the upcoming academy, we expect that by the end of May we should be at about 95% of budgeted complement.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So help me out here in terms of what's happening at Faribault with these periodic lockdowns.

PAUL SCHNELL: So what happens is that in order to meet the needs, the safety needs of a facility, the facility will implement what was known as a modified lockdown, which is effectively temporary rolling closure of certain programs. And it really is based on staffing. In order to meet the needs, safety needs of the facility, both the staff, as well as the incarcerated population, they will close certain programs in order to meet those safety needs, which will result in programs. It could be visiting. It could be education programs being temporarily closed on a rolling basis.

It's not optimal. It's certainly not what we want to do, but it's something that becomes necessary in order to make sure that we maintain the safety of the facility.

CATHY WURZER: Has this been happening at other facilities beyond Faribault?

PAUL SCHNELL: Yes, it is necessary in order to operate the facilities. And it's especially our larger facilities where we've had the greatest staffing challenges. And it's not unique to Minnesota. This is a national issue, occurs around the country.

CATHY WURZER: Why do you think that's happening? I mean, I can imagine being a corrections officer is probably very difficult work. But what's behind some of the drop in numbers at this point?

PAUL SCHNELL: Well, certainly, one of the issues that we faced in Minnesota and really around the country has been the fact that, first, workforce shortages, number one. Two, it is challenging work. And three, we were not competitive. And I think we finally addressed that issue, and that has resulted in-- we're starting to see is an increase in our numbers and our recruitment efforts.

But really, we need to make sure that in order-- we were forcing high numbers of people to work overtime, forced overtime. And that's really difficult on new employees who bear the burden of that primarily. And our retention was far-- was lower than 50%. And so that's not a solution to keep and maintain a workforce. And so we really had to turn the tide. And finally, we believe we're on a course to do that.

CATHY WURZER: So let me ask you about the other issue that you all are dealing with. And this is-- you've got several old facilities. I'm thinking Stillwater and Saint Cloud come to mind. The governor is recommending, I believe, what, $120 million in the bonding bill to do some repair of facilities? You've got a heck of a backlog, though, don't you?

PAUL SCHNELL: The deferred maintenance needs at the Department of Corrections represent 33%, a full 1/3 of the deferred maintenance of all deferred maintenance for the state of Minnesota. It's believed the estimate to bring the DOC's infrastructure to just fair condition is $723 million. So you know, 16 of our buildings are in crisis condition. 61 are in poor condition.

So you can see the dramatic needs that we have. And the governor's bonding bill is a reflection of the fact that we have to keep these buildings up. You know, it's one of the factors also I think that is a challenge for even for our employees.

CATHY WURZER: You know, I recall doing the story last summer when it was so very hot that some inmates at Stillwater just didn't want to go back to their cells because it was just so hot. There's no central air in Stillwater, if I'm remembering correctly.

PAUL SCHNELL: That's correct.

CATHY WURZER: What does that do? What is the not only the staffing issues had, but also the facilities, the crumbling facilities, what does that do for an inmate's quality of life?

PAUL SCHNELL: Well, I mean, I think this-- you know, we have to remember, we understand that this is about accountability. And we have to recognize that. But at the same time, our goal has to be given the fact that 95% of these folks are going to be coming back out to communities across our state, it's in our best interest to make sure they come out better than when they went in. And so that is our goal-- to focus on rehabilitation. And we need to make sure that our facilities are in a place where we can deliver on that and help these people to do better when they get back out into the community.

CATHY WURZER: I mentioned Stillwater. It's more than 100 years old. Saint Cloud, also really old. And they're throwbacks to an earlier time in corrections, obviously. Is it time to build some new facilities?

PAUL SCHNELL: Well, I think that's one of the things that we are in the midst of a study to look at. What is the future here? These are both 110 and 130-year-old facilities, respectively. And we are throwing lots and lots of money at trying to keep them up. And they are not modern, very safe, and cost a lot of money just to staff by virtue of the way they're designed and built. And so is it time for us to look at different options? And we have a study that's being done right now as we speak to answer that very question.

CATHY WURZER: I believe that the Department of Corrections bonding proposal is before several committees. Are you optimistic? I mean, this is part of the governor's bonding proposal. What have you heard in terms of chances of getting what you need?

PAUL SCHNELL: We certainly are hopeful. The governor moved this forward recognizing the clear need. We understand that what happens in prison is behind, you know, large walls and razor wire and something that the public does not see, unlike parks and colleges and universities that people get to see and use on a regular basis.

But nonetheless, these are important facilities to the public safety of our state. And that was recognized. And I think many legislators visited and toured our facilities over the course of the summer and had a chance to see that. So we're hopeful that there will be an investment to help us to make sure that these facilities do continue to stand. And we address the needs that exist in the very near future so that we don't have these problems continue.

CATHY WURZER: All right, commissioner, thank you for your time.

PAUL SCHNELL: Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to the Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.

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