Union calls for more prison officers after death

Published 11:45 pm Wednesday, August 1, 2018

ST. PAUL — Union leaders representing Minnesota corrections workers called for more prison officers and changes to inmate discipline rules following the death of a prison guard last month.

AFSME Council 5, the union representing Minnesota prison employees, has long complained that facilities are understaffed and officers are not equipped for the job. A renewed push Wednesday for changes follows the death of Corrections Officer Joseph Gomm, 45, who died of blunt force injuries when an inmate allegedly attacked him at the state’s flagship Stillwater prison.

“The crisis the Department of Corrections is in today has to be acknowledged and the responsibility taken by both department leadership and legislators,” said union President John Hillyard.

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DOC spokesman Sarah Fitzgerald said in a statement that a review indicates the need for 150 additional officers at state prisons.

“We agree we are in need of many more corrections officers in our facilities statewide,” Fitzgerald said, adding that the department supports the union’s call for more funding from the Legislature.

Hillyard called for more officers to be added across state prisons and for more cameras to be installed. But he stopped short at saying how much funding or staff is needed.

State Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said Wednesday that lawmakers need to wait for the investigative report that “will tell us what went wrong the day Officer Gomm died.” Limmer said the Legislature “will strongly consider any and all recommendations that come from the report.”

The union is also calling for changes on how inmates are punished when they attack prison employee.

An Associated Press analysis of DOC data shows inmate assaults on prison staff have gone up by 63 percent in 2018. The data shows there were 186 assaults on employees, up from 114 from the previous fiscal year. Assaults that caused harm jumped from 12 to 30, and assaults with weapons that caused harm rose from one to seven between 2017 and 2018.

The DOC has said it’s difficult to speculate on what motivates attacks on prison staff.

Fitzgerald said current disciplinary processes allow for more serious offenders to remain in restricted environments if they are “non-compliant” or display “assaultive behavior.” Union leaders said prisons didn’t receive more staff to accommodate changes made this spring.

Corrections officers aren’t able to go on strike, but Hillyard said they have actions they can take and to “stay tuned.”

At least three corrections officers have resigned following Gomm’s death, and many more have taken leaves of absences as of last week, the department said.

Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy announced the building Gomm died in will be indefinitely closed. Inmates took classes there through a state program learn welding and other skills but also have access to tools that can be used as weapons.

Authorities said 42-year-old inmate Edward Muhammad Johnson is the only suspect in Gomm’s attack. Johnson has been serving time on a nearly 29-year sentence for second-degree murder in 2002. Prosecutors have yet to file charges.

Gomm is believed to be the first corrections officer to die in the line of duty, and his funeral last week drew thousands of law enforcement officers.

“Everything we do today, we do in Joe’s honor,” Hillyard said. “None of us works to die, and this can never happen again.”