MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – This week marks one year since Minnesota’s first corrections officer was killed in the line of duty.
On Monday, WCCO’s Jennifer Mayerle told you about the push for safer prisons by the family of Officer Joe Gomm.
Now, Mayerle looks at where safety stands at Stillwater prison today and the challenges ahead.
“That was the darkest day on this department’s history,” said Officer Tony Medellin.
Inside Stillwater prison, on the third floor of the industry building, a corrections officer was in trouble.
“At 13:35 hours on July 18 was a call that I’ll never forget,” said Officer Medellin.
Officer Joe Gomm was alone with offenders working in welding and carpentry. An inmate serving time for murder was charged with attacking Gomm with a hammer that day, killing him. There weren’t any cameras in the area.
Friend and Officer Tony Medellin was first to arrive.
“That particular day that Joe lost his life we should have been staffed better,” said Officer Medellin.
That industry building is no longer in use.
Forty-six Stillwater officers have left since Gomm’s death. Right now, there are 26 openings.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell inherited the challenges with staffing and safety when he took over in January.
“I think we’re making progress, but nonetheless we have a lot of work still to do,” said Commissioner Schnell.
Schnell says there are several factors that go into officer and offender safety. But he admits the issue goes hand in hand with staffing. And they’re just not there yet.
“We’ve struggled, we’ve struggled with retention,” explained Commissioner Schnell.
He says DOC is making progress, becoming more competitive with wages and expediting the hiring process. In the meantime, they’ve reduced programming.
“An engaged population, inmate population, is one that is safer and easier to manage,” explained Schnell. “So these become some of our competing factors.”
Some offenders have started to work again, folding and packaging balloons. Schnell wants to get more back to work but is first studying how to better manage risk.
The camera system is being expanded and body cameras are being considered.
“They come in against all odds, they do a job nobody wants to do,” said Sgt. John Hillyard.
Union president Sgt. John Hillyard wants more for fellow officers.
“My personal opinion is I think stuff would’ve happened sooner, some changes would’ve happened quicker,” said Sgt. Hillyard.
DOC asked the legislature for 120 more corrections positions. It did approve 78, with 10 going to Stillwater.
“We didn’t get enough unfortunately, we need to move forward in the best way possible to make this institution safer,” said Sgt. John Hillyard.
“It sounds like you’re still saying elevated staffing equals safety?” asked Mayerle. “Absolutely,” Sgt. Hillyard replied.
Medellin knows these conversations are happening because of his friend. He says they’re never alone anymore like Gomm was.
“It’s unfortunate it took the loss of life to implement those measures,” said Officer Medellin.
Stillwater prison will hold a service for Officer Joe Gomm on Thursday.
The Department of Corrections is developing a wellness program for officers to help support them with what they deal with on the job.
It is currently hiring for those positions.