ST. PAUL — Even now, a year later, the stories about corrections officer Joseph Gomm keep coming.
Gomm, who was killed by an inmate at the Stillwater prison on July 18, 2018, once went to a grocery store and bought enough meat to fill the freezer of a fellow corrections officer in need, said Audrey Cone, his younger sister.
His co-worker was “going through a divorce and couldn’t afford to feed his family a Christmas dinner,” she said. “So Joe went out and bought this guy a whole bunch of meat. … Joe said, ‘Either you take it or I’m going to put it in your car, but you need to feed your family.’ ”
At 1 p.m. Thursday, July 18, the Minnesota Department of Corrections will host a “Ceremony of Remembrance” to honor Gomm, a 16-year veteran of the department. The ceremony, which is open to the public, will be held near the flagpole on the lawn of the historic warden’s house at 970 Pickett St. in Bayport, just across the street from the prison.
Gomm moved to Minnesota from Bucksport, Maine, about 18 years ago, following his sister and brother-in-law, Angela and David Wood, and his mother, Gloria Gomm. Cone followed about six years ago; she and her husband, Chris, live in St. Francis.
Family members from Maine will be in town to attend the ceremony, which will be led by DOC Chaplain Marty Shanahan. A moment of silence will be held, and a bench and rock monument in honor of Gomm will be unveiled.
“It’s going to be hard for all of us,” said Audrey Cone, 44, who works for the state of Minnesota. “We take it day by day. Every day is different.”
Cone said the family visits Gomm’s grave at Roselawn Cemetery in Roseville on every major holiday.
“The funeral wasn’t the end of it,” she said. “It was actually just the beginning for us, as a family, because we had to go through his house, his car, all the financial stuff."
“It’s been quite the roller-coaster ride,” added Chris Cone, 51, a service manager for a laser manufacturer. “It’s not going to end anytime soon. It’s been extremely hard on the family.”
Waiting for the trial
Gomm, 45, was attacked and killed while working in the prison’s industry building. Inmate Edward Muhammad Johnson, 43, who was serving a 29-year term for killing his girlfriend in 2002, has been charged with murder in connection with the crime.
Johnson is scheduled to appear at 1:30 p.m. Friday in Washington County District Court in Stillwater; his trial is slated to begin Sept. 9.
That date can’t come soon enough, Audrey Cone said.
“It doesn’t change the outcome,” she said. “It’s not bringing Joe back. (But) the quicker it goes, the better, so we can get closure and heal.”
Family' goal: Never again
The family is pushing for a life sentence for Johnson — the maximum available under state law.
“Ultimately, the justice for Joe for us as a family … is for this to never happen again,” Chris Cone said. “That would be the ultimate justice. And him to never be forgotten.”
On Aug. 1, about 6 miles of Minnesota Highway 95 between Interstate 94 in Lakeland and Minnesota 36 in Oak Park Heights will be renamed “Corrections Officer Joseph Gomm Memorial Highway.” “That was a very nice gesture on the state’s part,” Chris Cone said. “We really appreciate that.”
Said Audrey Cone: “For Joe to have touched so many lives and people that don’t know him, never knew him … it’s been very overwhelming. He will never be forgotten.”
Mike Padden, the attorney representing Gomm’s heirs, said the family is working to “ensure that a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again.”
Gomm “is the poster person for … making it clear that you need heroes like this to watch over the convicted,” according to Padden. “Every single moment they’re in these facilities, with these types of people, they’re at risk.”
Gomm’s death “really conveyed to the public the risks that these men and women face,” Padden said. “Sometimes it takes a tragedy to make things change.”
Attacks on staff decreasing
Changes are already occurring, according to DOC officials. There were 156 discipline convictions for assaults on prison staff in the 12-month period ending June 30, a 17 percent drop from the 188 assault convictions logged the year before.
“It’s trending in the right direction,” said Commissioner Paul Schnell, who took over the department in January. “We’re making progress, but we have a lot of work still to do.”
Gomm’s death impacted corrections officers “in terms of reconsideration or recommitment to safety protocols and practices and watching out for one another and really thinking through the things we do,” he said. “That does make a big difference, and we are realizing the benefit of that.”
Recruiting and hiring more staff also has become a priority. The department is working on becoming more competitive with wages and expediting the hiring process by “doing more hiring more at the correctional facility level,” he said. “That’s making a big difference in the numbers of people we’ve been able to attract and get hired.”
Would body cameras help?
One other change under consideration: the addition of body cameras.
“They would provide better information about what’s happening and, ultimately, we think it could have an impact in terms of behavior,” Schnell said.
Schnell said he is working to make sure DOC staff “feel more supported."
“We want this to never happen again,” he said. “The challenge is that while there are a lot of things we can do to bolster safety and security … we also have to acknowledge that there is no guaranteeing, 100 percent, the safety of people who do this work.”
“There is no simple one answer,” he said. “It’s not cameras, but cameras are a part of it. It’s not increased staffing, but increased staffing is a part of it. It’s all of these things together that makes a difference.”