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Union Says Staffing and Program Shortages Spell Danger in MN Prisons

October 13, 2010

STILLWATER, Minn. - Correctional officers from Minnesota's prison system and their labor union warn that staffing shortages coupled with inmate program cuts add up to a disaster waiting to happen. AFSCME Council 5 is calling public attention to what its members deem dangerous staffing shortages inside correctional facilities in Stillwater, Oak Park Heights and Moose Lake.

Concerns over staffing stem from prison disturbances in the past year, including a violent fight on May 15 at Stillwater involving 70 prisoners, says Sgt. John Hillyard, president of AFSCME Local 600.

"I've worked here at Stillwater for 16 or 17 years, and I worked in corrections in other places before this; and I have never seen a disturbance of this level, especially here in the state of Minnesota."

Since 2003, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) experienced $68 million in cuts. During the same period, the Stillwater inmate population increased by at least 300.

The union is asking the state to allocate $1.8 million for 30 officers statewide, and to restore $3 million in inmate programming. DOC records indicate 15 correctional officers have been added to Stillwater since Fiscal Year 2004, but union representatives say the positions are in management and have no direct contact with prisoners.

Shari Burt, DOC communications director, disagrees with the union's assertion that the system is experiencing a staffing crisis. She says, despite historic budget deficits, not one correctional officer position has been cut.

"We have had some reductions to our budget, as have all government agencies, although we still have programming for work, education, sex offender treatment, chemical dependency treatment. So, we try to keep offenders productively occupied throughout most of the day, when they aren't locked in their cells."

Burt declined to comment further on staffing specifics, but cites an average of one full-time officer per 4.7 inmates in the state prison system, which she says is lower than the national average of 7.5 inmates per officer. The ratio is not per shift, she explains, but reflects the total number of officers – including trainees – across all shifts and stations.

Hillyard says programming cuts have been noticeable, and have resulted in more restlessness among inmates.

"We just don't warehouse inmates. We have to be able to give them something to do, whether it's with education, recreation programming, job training programming. If we don't have these things for them to do, then they find things to do, and usually it's not good things – they take it out on the officers and other staff."

Burt counters that the amount of idle time among inmates has remained steady in the past three years. She adds, however, that the agency does not have such data available for years prior to 2008.

Sharon Rolenc, Public News Service - MN