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Minnesota Lawmakers Look at Prison Reforms

by Chad Marks

Lawmakers in Minnesota are considering a bipartisan bill aimed at reducing the state’s prison population. Data from August 2018 indicate that the adult prison population was 9,849, and some legislators have expressed concerns about racial disparities in the prison system. 

According to recent statistics from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, while Native Americans make up less than two percent of the population they comprise 10 percent of state prisoners. African Americans are less than seven percent of the state’s population, but represent 35 percent of the prison population.

Recognizing these disparities, along with other issues within state prisons, Minnesota lawmakers are looking at reforms. On February 6, 2019, the House Corrections Division Subcommittee held a hearing at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater; two weeks earlier, five legislators had toured the prison. 

In July 2018, Stillwater guard Joseph Gomm was killed by prisoner Edward Muhammad Johnson; Gomm was found beaten and stabbed to death in a workshop at the prison that now sits idle. [See: PLN, Mar. 2019, p.63].

Only one prisoner was permitted to watch the subcommittee hearing, and none were allowed to testify. A “listening session” with prisoners was reportedly scheduled to occur several weeks later.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” noted Lennell Maurice Martin, senior editor of Stillwater’s newspaper, The Prison Mirror. “A small percentage of the population actually commits the assaults, but there’s no concern [by prison administrators] for the reason why.”

Officials at the facility have said it is understaffed, which undermines safety for both employees and prisoners. Associate Warden Victor Wanchena noted that low staffing levels can result in restrictions on programs for prisoners. 

“We have good days and bad days,” he said. “Days when we are short, for a variety of reasons, things like recreation are things we have to shut down.”

Prison officials are looking for funding to increase staffing not only at Stillwater but at other facilities statewide.

State Rep. John “Jack” Considine, Jr., who chairs the House Corrections Division Subcommittee, along with Rep. Carlos Mariani, plan to introduce a prison staffing bill named after Gomm. Both legislators commented that they wanted more educational opportunities for prisoners, but the number one priority is to improve safety in state prisons.

“I think people forget about prisons,” Considine remarked. “You put the offenders away and they’re done. OK, we can forget about it but you can’t.”

Lawmakers are also considering changes to Minnesota’s probation system; the state ranks fifth nationally with respect to the percentage of residents on probation. Proposed reforms would cap probation terms at five years (except for cases involving murder or criminal sexual misconduct), and reduce the number of people sent to prison for probation violations. That legislation, if passed, would not be applied retroactively, however. Presently, probation terms can extend up to four decades.

“As opposed to having a probation system that’s really set up to just watch and wait for you to make a little mistake, we want a much more helpful probation system that interacts in real ways with the lives of the folks that are in the corrections system,” said Rep. Mariani.

Further, former Minnesota prisoner Philip Holmes, who is now a criminal justice reform activist, recommended reinstating a DOC ombudsman to review complaints filed by prisoners. The DOC previously had an ombudsman but the position was eliminated in 2003.

Rep. Considine indicated he was receptive to that idea. 

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Sources: duluthnewstribune.com, mprnews.org, minnlawyer.com, twincities.com

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