ST. PAUL — The number of inmates who were convicted for assaulting corrections officers at Minnesota state prisons decreased over the past year, following a record surge in violence in the 12 months prior.
There were 156 discipline convictions for assaults on prison staff in the 12-month period ending June 30, according to new data from the state Department of Corrections. That’s down 17 percent from the 188 assault convictions logged the year before but still much higher than previous years.
DOC officials say corrections officers have been on high alert since two of their colleagues died in the line of duty last year. Their deaths brought calls for more staffing at state prisons, which are now being answered with the help of state funding.
Corrections officer Joseph Gomm was allegedly bludgeoned to death by an inmate at the Stillwater prison last July. Two months later, corrections officer Joe Parise died of a medical emergency after responding to an attack on a colleague at the Oak Park Heights facility.
“One of the things I think that happens after incidents like last summer is that there is kind of a general, broader sense of awareness from an officer safety standpoint,” said DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell. “There’s also a tendency to be more diligent in terms of … watching out for one another.”
Most assaults in 2019 occurred at the prisons in Stillwater and Oak Park Heights, which recorded 47 and 42 discipline convictions, respectively. Those numbers are also down compared to the past year, when Oak Park Heights had 66 convictions and Stillwater had 59.
Stricter penalties after Gomm's death
Gomm’s death had a major impact on both the officers and offenders at the Stillwater prison, said Associate Warden Victor Wanchena. Over the past year, staff has imposed stricter penalties on inmates who assault corrections officers. And they have begun training older inmates to mentor young offenders.
“We have been really focused on … bridging some gaps in terms of communication. And doing that in such a way that there is an understanding about the need for us to reduce violence, and that the offenders have as big of a role in this as we do,” Wanchena said.
Oak Park Heights corrections officer Glenn Lisowy said the decrease in assaults at his facility is no cause for celebration.
“So 24 more staff didn’t get smoked, but 42 still did,” said Lisowy, who has been assaulted several times in his career. “Tell me a business that thinks that that’s a good thing.”
The St. Cloud prison was the only facility where assaults spiked. It recorded 30 discipline convictions for assaults on officers in the year ending June 30, compared to 16 the year before.
Help on the way
The deaths of Gomm and Parise highlighted a problem that had long been ignored by lawmakers and the public: State prisons were dangerously short on staff.
This year, the Legislature gave the DOC enough money to hire 67 new corrections officers over the next two years plus another 11 by the end of fiscal year 2023.
DOC officials have ramped up their hiring efforts through social media and open house events at the Stillwater and Oak Park Heights prisons.
Their efforts have proven successful. Fifty-four recruits will enter the July academy for new corrections officers.
“The July academy, which is what we were really pushing for, does look to have higher numbers than we’ve ever had before when we’ve done the more traditional hiring processes,” Schnell said.