Stillwater prison inmate explains protest that sparked lockdown

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.'"

"They’ve been stuck inside their cells for two to three days where it's so hot they’re reporting the walls are starting to sweat," said Marvina Haynes with Minnesota Wrongfully Convicted Judicial Reform. "It's inhumane."

Haynes said she communicated with inmates Sunday who said in addition to the lack of air conditioning,  the prison has continually reduced the time they’re allowed to be outside of their cells the last several months which means less time for showers, phone calls, and laundry.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said most of the inmate’s complaints were due to a staffing crisis.

"The more staff we have, the more we can open up programming – which is the concern of the incarcerated individuals – and we understand that," said Schnell.

Schnell said Stillwater is currently down 50 correctional officers, while the job vacancy rate across the entire state prison system is 14 percent.

"Being able to hire, recruit and retain has no doubt been a challenge," he said. 

Advocates called on Schnell to utilize existing laws that would allow for low-risk offenders to be re-introduced into society, temporarily alleviating the staffing issue. 

"People are ready to come home, ready to work, ready to continue to go to school, and be reunited with their families but the DOC is choosing not to do that," said David Boehnke with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

"At this point in time we believe it's really important that we’re smart about how we do this – not just release people to fail," said Schnell.

As for the lack of air conditioning, Schnell said they plan to lobby the legislature for cooling system upgrades next legislative session but didn’t offer any more immediate remedies. FOX 9 meteorologists say the heat index in Stillwater was 101 at its peak Sunday. 

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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.