Commissioner orders new water tests at Stillwater prison amid protests

Hundreds of cells line the walls inside of Stillwater prison.
Hundreds of cells line the walls inside of Stillwater Correctional Facility in Bayport, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

The Minnesota Department of Corrections has ordered extensive water testing at its Stillwater facility, a week after more than 100 prisoners protested their living conditions.

In the meantime, the department has brought in bottled water for staff and those incarcerated at the facility.

In a news release late Saturday, the department said Commissioner Paul Schnell is ordering the testing to “assure staff and incarcerated individuals that the water is safe for drinking.”

The new tests come just a week after more than 100 inmates refused to go to their cells, which family members said was in direct protest to reduced shower, phone and recreation time, as well as dangerously hot rooms and poor water quality.

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At a Friday news conference, relatives and activists said state officials to look into the situation.

“We’re calling on the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to launch an investigation into the water crisis that’s happening in Stillwater,” said Marvina Haynes, whose brother is inside the facility. “We want our folks to come home as healthy as they went into Stillwater Prison.”

Monthly and yearly water tests have not found unsafe level of contaminants like E.coli, but prison officials said an analysis of sediments in the water supply has not been conducted. An analysis is scheduled in the next week to see if the water contains sediments like iron, rust or anything that would pose health risks.

“We recognize there are sediments in the well water which can at times affect clarity with a reddish-brown tint,” said DOC spokesperson Andy Skoogman in a news release. “It’s important to point out that although the water may be unclear, it has not been deemed unsafe through the routine third party water testing.”

Meanwhile, the prison took steps to begin to lift a days-long lockdown for people who did not take part in the protest but who are living in the same unit, a spokesperson said. Additional staff has been brought in from across the system to allow access to recreation, showers and phone usage.

Seven prisoners believed to have led the protest remain in “administrative segregation,” according to a department spokesperson. Another 120 incarcerated individuals are being held in their own cells, but they have limited access to recreation, showers and phone usage.

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this report.