STILLWATER, Minn. (WCCO) — The new head of the Minnesota Department of Corrections is entering his second week on the job on Monday and there are challenges after a deadly year for officers.

WCCO’s Jennifer Mayerle got a rare look inside Stillwater prison, where officers there are still dealing with loss.

Few see the inside of Stillwater prison where nearly 1,600 offenders live. We went through layers of security, just as corrections officers do.

The offenders filed through the hallways while officers monitored movement. Those locked up eat in a cafeteria and sleep behind bars. Staff interacts with the population.

“Our officers come in every day and they do jobs and the work that nobody else wants to do,” said Sgt. John Hillyard.

Sgt. Hillyard has worked inside Minnesota prisons for a quarter century. This last year at Stillwater has been his most challenging.

“The last few months have been, at best, awful. Our officers will be dealing with this for years to come,” Hillyard said.

Stillwater officer Joe Gomm died in July after being attacked by an offender.

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“I’ve lost sleep. I worry it will happen to one of my fellow officers and when I get to the point where I think I’m past it, it comes up again,” Hillyard said. “I want to make sure in the future our officers have the tools and the resources they need to deal with this as we move forward into this year.”

Hillyard says fellow officers believe conditions will improve under new Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.

We talked to Schnell on his second day on the job.

“I honor the work that they did and the work that people who come into these facilities do. Their work is important and it reflects the best interest of Minnesota,” Schnell said.

He doesn’t shy away from admitting there are challenges – 71 correctional officers have left since Gomm’s death.

“We’re in a really difficult spot,” Schnell said. “Getting people to come into this type of work and making sure people feel safe in doing that has got to be a priority. We have to invest in the safety and security before we start really digging into the ways in which we move forward.”

He said safety needs to be the foundation while prisons increase security measures, adding cameras to monitor core areas, among other things he wouldn’t disclose.

Schnell believes education and staying connected to family on the outside is paramount to success.

“There’s no doubt that when we can keep offenders engaged, doing things that are investments in themselves, that helps,” Schnell said.

Sgt. Hillyard says he continues to show up to work every day for the safety of all Minnesotans.

“We have a responsibility, not only to our fellow officers but to the state of Minnesota and the public in general. We come in because we do the work that needs to be done,” Hillyard said. “No matter what happens, at the end of the day, we’re all here for each other.”

Schnell says he can’t start looking at the big issues until open positions are filled and staffing levels are elevated. That comes first, then he said he can start looking at reform.

Jennifer Mayerle

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