Correctional workers take action to stay safe at Stillwater prison

9-5-2018

About 30 correctional officers and workers successfully shut down the industry area at the Stillwater Correctional Facility Wednesday due to safety concerns.

The officers refused to work in that area, saying there weren’t enough staff, functioning cameras or adequate radio communications to keep workers and inmates safe. They cited their AFSCME contract and state law, which allows employees to refuse to work when conditions are unsafe.

The correctional officers and workers said they’d go anywhere else in the prison, but not in the industry area, not until there was adequate staffing to allow officers to patrol in pairs rather than alone.

The work action involved all workers in the area, including teachers, counselors and LPNs – they stood firm together and nobody crossed the line.

“We are very proud of our officers and correctional workers for the stance they took today, and their union will provide every resource available to stand behind them,” said Council 5 associate director Tim Henderson.

“We don’t know what happens tomorrow,” Henderson said. “We’re having conversations with the Commissioner’s office this afternoon. Hopefully we’ll come to an agreement on a staffing number for the industry area.”

The Minnesota Department of Corrections had previously closed down the Stillwater industry area, where inmates made items like desks, after an inmate attacked and killed Correctional Officer Joe Gomm in mid-July. Gomm was murdered while patrolling alone, and the area was short-staffed.

Wednesday, the Department moved to reopen the industry area with 18 inmates and 21 staff, but with plans to quickly ramp that number up to more than 140 inmates within a week. The industry area covers 11 acres, and there are numerous blind spots. Cameras haven't been fully upgraded yet and don’t cover the full site. 

Council 5 reached out to our attorney and threatened the Department with grievances if they tried to open industry.

Correctional officers want to ensure there’s enough staff so they can patrol the area in pairs.

“We want to minimize the blind spots,” Henderson said. “We don’t want the offenders to have the opportunity to jump anyone. We want our officers who are roaming to be doubled up so they don’t feel vulnerable, so they know that somebody’s got their back.”

The work action Wednesday is part of an ongoing push by AFSCME Council 5 and leaders of its Corrections Policy Committee to honor Joseph Gomm and make sure his death was not in vain. They are demanding funding for more correctional officers and workers; the elimination of the 90-day stepdown program and a return to previous discipline guidelines; and safety equipment including cameras.

“Correctional officers and workers want to wake up, go to work, put an honest day’s work in and go home,” Henderson says. “They just want to ensure the safety and the security of the facility, and that they have enough officers and staff to watch out for one another.”

AFSCME Council 5 represents 2,500 correctional workers in Minnesota, along with about 40,000 public and non-profit workers.