Politics and Government

Minnesota corrections officials investigate inmate death, possibly drug-related

In the state and nationwide, prisons face a deadly synthetic drug challenge

Stone sign outside Stillwater prison.
Guard towers and fencing surrounds the Stillwater Correctional Facility on Oct. 25, 2019, in Stillwater.
John Minchillo | AP

The Minnesota Department of Corrections is investigating a potential drug-related death at the Stillwater prison, after a 22-year-old incarcerated man was found unresponsive in his cell early Saturday and pronounced dead shortly after. 

Correctional officers tried to save the man upon finding him in his cell at 3:30 a.m., but he was ultimately pronounced dead at 3:53 a.m., according to a press release from the corrections department. 

The Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office is performing an autopsy to determine the cause of death. The name of the deceased is withheld while his family is notified. 

Investigators are exploring a possible connection to synthetic drugs, due to “indicators found in the man’s cell” at the Stillwater facility, the agency said. The corrections department does not suspect the man was the victim of an attack.

Both in Minnesota and nationwide, prison systems are working to stem the flow of synthetic drugs, which often slip into facilities undetected through the mail.

A recent U.S. Department of Justice report on inmate deaths at federal prisons traced a third of inmate deaths to contraband drugs and weapons. From 2001 to 2018, the number of people who have died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons increased by more than 600 percent

In an interview with MPR News earlier this month, Minnesota corrections commissioner Paul Schnell said that while scanning technology does detect a percentage of compromised mail coming in, it can’t catch all of it, as some paper soaked in the synthetic substances appears clean.

“That paper gets cut up and distributed and contains the synthetic substances that people use to get high,” he said. “People don’t know what they’re taking and, frankly, in some instances, we don’t know what they’re taking because it’s not always detectable.”

Guards patrol the cells
Guards patrol the cells at Minnesota Correctional Facility - Oak Park Heights in Oak Park Heights, Minnesota, on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2022.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Schnell said the introduction of synthetic drugs has not only led to extreme illness, but “out of control” behavior in some instances, as well. He added that when people require medical attention due to suspected drug use, it can also lead to lockdowns as staffing is “stabilized.”

“The response that’s necessitated because of the ingestion of these substances oftentimes has implications for the whole of a housing unit, because we’re going to have to send staff out with that incarcerated person who is going to the hospital,” Schnell said.

The Stillwater housing unit where the recent death occurred remains locked up until further notice, the DOC said. 

Earlier this month, family members with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee expressed concern that not enough was being done by the corrections department to stem the tide of synthetic drugs and drug overdoses, pointing to an apparent influx in the past five months, which the corrections department did not confirm. 

Schnell said that 75-80 percent of the incoming prison population suffers from a substance-use disorder, including opioid addictions, which makes the introduction of synthetic drugs even more problematic to those making efforts to rehabilitate.

The commissioner hopes a recent upswing in staffing will help mitigate the issue, especially as more hands help pilot a system of photocopying mail for inmates, to shield from direct contact with drugs. Mail from legal representatives would be exempt, due to attorney-client privilege.

In April, the agency was down 211 correctional officers, including 62 short at Stillwater, according to data shared with MPR News. On June 6, Schnell said staffing at all 11 state prisons had increased, exceeding 90 percent of what is budgeted at all facilities except Stillwater. 

Still, a number of vacancies are yet to be filled — particularly positions related to substance-use disorders. Schnell said substance-use disorder counselors usually have a caseload of about 10 patients per person.

Schnell said as the “single largest substance-use disorder treatment provider in the state,” these vacancies are a significant priority. 

“It’s a much more challenging environment that is really difficult to recruit and retain, and it’s a very competitive marketplace,” he said. “We have a great cadre of staff, but these are areas where we need to bolster those services in order to help us achieve better outcomes.”

Since 2015, one in five drug overdoses happened to those released from a correctional facility within the last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Statewide, the number of opioid-related deaths have more than doubled since 2019. 

In the press release related to the Stillwater death, Schnell extended his condolences to family members of the unnamed 22-year-old. He said if the death is deemed drug-related, the DOC will make “every effort” to determine who introduced the drugs in order to pursue prosecution to “the fullest extent of the law.”