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With safety in the spotlight, Minn. lawmakers hold hearing in prison

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An inmate watches government officials tour Stillwater prison.
An inmate watches government officials tour Stillwater Correctional Facility in Bayport, Minn., on Jan. 25.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Minnesota legislators plan to hold a hearing where no legislative body has ever met before — the Stillwater prison. 

The state House corrections division is meeting Wednesday to review overall state prison staffing and safety.

Five DFL lawmakers toured the 104-year-old Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater in lockdown, in preparation for their hearing.

A corrections officer wears a pin commemorating Joseph Gomm.
A corrections officer wears a pin commemorating Joseph Gomm, who was killed by an inmate in July 2018 inside the Stillwater Correctional Facility.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The union for the officers says assaults on prison staff by inmates have increased. Last year for the first time a Minnesota corrections officer, Joseph Gomm, was killed while on duty. Another officer, Joe Parise died after a medical emergency following his intervention in a fight at Oak Park Heights prison.

"These tragedies have gotten our attention," said Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, "And it's our family members, our friends, our neighbors that are working in these facilities."

Legislators walked by cell blocks, and glimpsed areas for solitary confinement. Prison guides, including Warden Eddie Miles, showed off the education center and dining hall. Miles said they want "to help guys be successful upon release. We have to make sure that they feel safe to come out of their cells before they can go to some of the value added programming that we try to offer."

Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, who worked as a counselor at the Blue Earth County Jail and at the Minnesota Security Hospital, has closely watched corrections issues in the state for decades. He says along with staffing there's been too little thought on helping offenders adjust to life outside.

A corrections officer stands in front of a guard dog.
The guard tells inmates to refer to the dog as "Canine Friendly," not giving out its name so it can be distracted.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"This is directly on the Legislature, they just haven't shown a lot of interest in what was going on and haven't funded a lot of things, not just staffing, but programming, innovation," he said.

Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, who was not on the tour, said in an interview that while inmate rehabilitation is important, staff safety is of paramount importance. She's also concerned about what the additional personnel will cost state taxpayers.

Hundreds of cells line the walls inside of Stillwater prison.
Hundreds of cells line the walls inside of Stillwater Correctional Facility.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I can't tell you how many additional officers they actually need, that's something we need to discuss in the committee and hear honestly, with documentation to say, 'OK, we implement these safety procedures, how many people do we really need?'" she said.

Gov. Tim Walz said he wants to better protect corrections officers, while trying to keep inmates from re-offending once they are released.