Scathing report criticizes Dept. of Corrections workplace culture, staffing

Office of the Legislative Auditor finds disturbing accounts of harassment, retaliation

Sloane Martin
February 26, 2020 - 4:56 pm
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The Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor is out with a scathing report on the Department of Corrections, strongly criticizing the agency's staffing, workplace culture and data collection.

Not only were researchers confronted with a dearth of information and a lack of record keeping, but what they did hear by embedding themselves at the state's highest security facilities was alarming. 

Women staff members shared being targeted by male inmates with no repercussions and not feeling supported by their fellow officers.

"We learned that in several of the state's facilities that there are prisoners who expose themselves, who masterbate in front of female staff, who tell them in graphic detail what they want to do with them and we heard this from staff, but it's hard to see in the data because this type of behavior is lumped together with other categories of misconduct," David Kirchner with OLA told a House committee Wednesday.

Other staff members reported an environment of distrust and retaliation. In a survey, one in three staff members said bullying and harassment was a workplace problem, sometimes by direct supervisors. The number was 40% for women and African-Americans, something Kirchner called "disturbingly high."

READ THE ENTIRE OLA REPORT HERE

"One officer, for example, described described to us a circumstance where they were working in a living unit and called for back up from the emergency response team," Kirchner said. "The emergency response team said 'No we're not coming' because of their perception that that officer had reported on another staff person."

OLA visited nine of Minnesota's 11 facilities and spent the most time and resources in the four with highest security levels: St. Cloud, Stillwater, Rush City and Oak Park Heights. For three days employees spent time interviewing prisoners and staff members to get a "nuanced feel of what was going on." There are around 9,200 prisoners (with Minnesota having a lower incarceration rate than other states), with 3,700 staff members — 2,100 of which are corrections officers, lieutenants, etc., and the rest comprising of behavioral and medical staff, food service, etc.

The report found overtime has quadrupled since 2013. It recommended increasing efforts to hire and retain workers as well as minimum staffing level. OLA investigators heard from workers who said job performance suffers with a high volume of hours. A lack of staffing also increases tensions because inmates have to be kept inside their cells for longer and prevents officers from developing relationships that can be critical in future situations. A smaller staff also means inmates lose activities tied to lowering violence and recidivism like educational, religious and visit opportunities. The DOC does not track when these cancellations occur, according to the OLA report.

Kirchner says the DOC does not formally measure safety so data on violent incidents is poor, but it did find that, except for a spike of violent incidents against corrections officers in 2018, including two deaths, prisoner-on-prisoner violence is more common.

Commissioner Paul Schnell said they accept the findings of the report and the agency is prepared to convene working groups to tackle each of the report's recommendations. He addressed the accounts of a miserable, dehumanizing workplace environment by women and other staffers by apologizing.

"I am sorry," Schnell said. "I am committed to changing that."

The OLA report said state prisons should be held to the same licensure and standards as county jails which are routinely inspected. Kirchner told lawmakers that there is little systematic oversight of state prisons, except for the juvenile facility in Red Wing, and the recommendations are not binding. The report urged the legislature to put into law better and regular external assessments of safety.

The report also suggested a conversation begin about rehabilitating or even replacing the prisons at Stillwater and St. Cloud which are more than 100 years old.

"Prisons are not built like this anymore," Kirchner said.

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