Prisoner visits, religious services, eliminated in shutdown

Andrew Hegranes
Stillwater inmate Andrew Hegranes, pictured with his 8-year-old daughter during a weekly visit. Visits have been suspended during the shutdown while the Department of Corrections performs only critical functions.
Photo courtesy of Steven Hegranes

Services to inmates are being curtailed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, prompted by the state government shutdown.

Cutbacks have forced the department to suspend visitations from family or volunteers, and temporarily halt indoor recreation time and group religious services. Corrections officials are concerned about how long they'll be able to run the system without the services, which are often key to maintaining order and inmate morale.

The department laid off 600 workers in support areas, although most of the 3,600 correctional staffers who work directly with inmates are still on the job.

State officials are retaining during the shutdown only personnel who keep Minnesota's 9,600 locked up or supervise those who are serving part of their sentences on community release programs.

It's a balancing act to reduce activities at prisons and maintain public safety, said David Crist, deputy commissioner of the department's facilities services, which runs Minnesota's eight prisons.

"Nowhere is it more true than in a prison that idle hands are the devil's workshop," Crist said. "So, we are trying to keep our programming at a high level, keep constructive assignments for offenders — to prevent that kind of idleness."

Particularly, restoring religious activities is a priority for department officials, Crist said.

"Inmates do have the constitutional right to religious expression," he said. "So we also ways knew this would be a temporary suspension of those activities and eventually, we want to bring them back."

Last week, the Department of Corrections sent offenders a revised memo with more details on the shutdown. Prison libraries are closed. Health care and chemical dependency treatment will continue. Visitors may be allowed in some extenuating circumstances, such as for terminally ill offenders.

David Crist
David Crist, deputy commissioner for facilities for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, says 85 percent of corrections staff remain on duty to oversee 9600 inmates in the state's eight prisons.
MPR Photo/ Sasha Aslanian

"We've got a long-standing practice of not surprising offenders lest some of the surprises that come back to us can be pretty awful," he said.

At the correctional facility in Oak Park Heights, which houses the most dangerous offenders, the biggest consequence for offenders is losing visitors from the outside world, correctional sergeant Mike Keapproth said. But so far, he hasn't seen any backlash.

"It's a privilege that they earn through behavior," Keapproth said. "When they don't see any reason for losing it because of their behavior, that's the type of things that can set them off."

Keapproth, the president of the AFSME local for Oak Park Heights, said the shutdown aggravates an existing staffing shortage by laying off trainees and correctional officers still on probation. That means other officers are working overtime.

At the women's prison in Shakopee, Sincerae Douglas of Minneapolis lives in the parenting unit. Normally she sees her daughters, ages 4 and 6, a couple of weekends a month. Now she can only talk with them on the phone.

Russel Balenger
Russel Balenger, senior vice president for Amicus, a non-profit which befriends inmates, said inmates and volunteers both are disappointed visits are canceled during the shutdown.
MPR Photo/ Sasha Aslanian

Douglas, 25, is serving a seven-year sentence on an unintentional murder charge in a domestic violence case. Like other inmates, she looked forward to recreation time and visits to the library and saw them as an escape from the tedium of prison life.

Douglas said now that indoor recreation has been canceled, the shutdown shows her how just much she counts on the daily structure of working her prison job as a recreation assistant.

"There are some women upset about it," Douglas said. "I'm a very optimistic person. I've been here five years. My whole outlook on life has changed. I try to keep optimistic.

"I just say 'the only thing we can do as offenders is roll with the punches.' "

Family members also have to roll with the punches.

Steve Hegranes of St. Paul can't bring his eight-year-old granddaughter to Stillwater prison for her weekend visits with her dad.

"It's hard. 'Government shutdown' means nothing to her," Hegranes said. "So we just say, 'we're not going to be able to go and see daddy this weekend.' "

His son, Andrew Hegranes, will be behind bars until 2024 on a murder conviction. While there may not be much public sympathy for inmates who can't receive visitors, corrections officials say visits can play an important role in promoting public safety.

New, unpublished data from the department show offenders who have positive relationships with people on the outside have a better opportunity to re-enter society and lower recidivism. And not all inmates have that going for them.

"To be real honest with you, an inmate's very lucky if they have family that visits them," said Russel Balenger senior vice president of Amicus, a non-profit that pairs offenders with volunteers who visit them.

Amicus's 300 volunteers have been told their visits are canceled during the shutdown, and so is Balenger's monthly Connections group for Stillwater inmates.

"I routinely get a call from somebody — about every other day," Balenger said. "And it just kind of dawned on me today that I haven't heard from anybody. There's no messages on my machine from the facilities and it made sense."

Balenger thinks he'll hear all about the shutdown from inmates, once it's over.

However, life in Minnesota's prisons may not completely return to its state previous to shutdown.

As the state government continues to negotiate, corrections officials brace for cuts to their budget. Both Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP leaders propose trimming the corrections budget.

MPR News reporter Laura Yuen contributed to this report.