ST. PAUL, Minn. — In 2018, two violent prison events led to the deaths of guards Joseph Gomm and Joseph Parise.

That prompted the state legislative auditor to undertake a comprehensive safety evaluation at the state’s 11 correctional facilities.

“We found a number of conditions that frankly reduce the safety in state prisons,” Deputy Legislative Auditor Judy Randall said.

The report found that the Department of Corrections does a poor job collecting and tracking safety issues and concerns.

“When you start digging into the information, the data you find with that information on violent incidents is poor and difficult to work with,” report manager David Kirschner said.

Kirchner was presenting results to a joint hearing of the Corrections and Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform committee.

The probe also faults a prison culture that harbors bullying among staff and does little to prevent sexual harassment of female guards by prison residents.

In addition, it found serious staff shortages which required guards into forced overtime, unprofessional relationships among staff, limited state oversight and seriously outdated facilities.

Stillwater and St. Cloud prisons were built more than a century ago and lack modern safety design.

“I’d be remised if I didn’t mention the loss of officers Gomm and Parisem,” Commissioner Paul Schnell said.

As several guards listened to his testimony, Commissioner Schnell said assaults on guards have fallen sharply since spiking in 2018. The report could not identify reasons for the spike in attacks.

Schnell promised lawmakers that the department will accept the criticism and recommendations for change.

“I recognize that defensiveness and blame laying and minimization won’t make correctional facilities safer,” Schnell said.

One thing that could help immediately would be adequate staffing, which the department has been making serious strides in addressing.

“When you’re working 16 hours a day, in that kind of environment, working on three or four hours of sleep, what do you think is going to happen?” Republican Representative, Marion O’Neill of Maple Lake said.

Yet changes won’t come without the dollars to fix what’s broke.

Bill Hudson

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