STILLWATER, Minn. (FOX 9) – The Minnesota Department of Corrections says a situation at the Stillwater prison has been “resolved” after an emergency lockdown on Sunday.
The DOC tells FOX 9 inmates have returned to their cells after about 100 inmates refused to do so Sunday morning. An emergency lockdown was issued starting around 8 a.m. for the incident. In an update shortly before 4 p.m., the DOC said the incident was “resolved without incident” adding everyone was back in their cells.
A spokesperson called the incident “peaceful” throughout, saying there were no reported injuries. All staff had been able to make it out of the occupied areas aside from two guards who were in a secured zone.
Inmate talks protest
The DOC blamed “dissatisfaction” among inmates over “modified cell release schedules over the holiday weekend” for the incident. Activists however claimed a “lack of access to clean water” and the hot weather drove the emergency situation. DOC officials say those claims are false.
An inmate at Stillwater Correctional Facility paints a grim picture during a recorded phone call on Sunday. “It’s supposed to be a record week of heat and they got us locked in cells. No air conditioning, no water, no showers, no nothing,” he says.
The inmate reports they have been mostly locked in their cells for the past few months. “It got to a point now where we had to take a peaceful protest and take a stand for our rights and say, ‘Listen, we ain’t taking no more.'”
“It’s inhumane to keep them locked up in those cells,” added Marvina Haynes from Minnesota Wrongfully Convicted Judicial Reform. “We can’t even treat our animals in that condition.”
Paul Schnell, Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, blamed staffing concerns for those conditions. “The more staff we have, the more we can open up programming, which is the concerns of the incarcerated people, and we understand that,” he says.
For the complaints about the heat and the lack of air conditioning in the building, Schell blames the century-old facilities. “We know it’s exceedingly hot in these facilities. We care about that issue for the sake of the people who live here, but also the people who report here for work here every day.”
Schnell says that the Stillwater prison alone is short 50 officers. Inmate advocates are urging the Department of Corrections to release those eligible for community programs and reduce the prison population.
“People are ready to come home and work. People are ready to continue going to school. People are ready to be reunited with their families, but the DOC is choosing not to do that,” David Boehnke of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee states.
Schnell largely dismissed that idea. “At this point in time, we believe it’s really important that we’re smart about how we manage this, not just to release people to fail,” he says.
While the emergency lockdown was lifted around 3 p.m., Schnell acknowledges that the root issues that led to the protest remain unresolved. “We simply had to implement a modified schedule for this weekend, and we understand the challenges, but that’s where we are,” Schnell concludes.
Schnell says the DOC is going to the legislature next year, asking for funding to upgrade cooling systems. They’ve also made a huge effort to up recruiting efforts to meet staffing demands.
In a statement from the AFSCME Council 5, a union that represents corrections officers in Minnesota, Executive Director Bart Andersen said the lockdown on Sunday was a result of “chronic understaffing” at the prison.
“Today’s incident at MCF- Stillwater is endemic and highlights the truth behind the operations of the MN Department of Corrections with chronic understaffing leading to upset offenders due to the need to restrict programming and/or recreation time when there are not enough security staff to protect the facility,” said Andersen. “Our union believes to our core that our correctional facilities cannot have transformational offender programming without sufficient facility security, we can and must have both.”
There are currently 1,202 inmates being held at the prison. The prison, built in 1914, includes seven living units along with a minimum-security unit outside the main perimeter.