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Audit: Female prison staff 'expected to deal with masturbating prisoners'

One person interviewed for the audit said sexual harassment of women has been blamed on "what they wear to work."

One person interviewed for the audit said sexual harassment of women has been blamed on "what they wear to work." Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Women who work at Minnesota prisons are "regularly the targets of sexual offenses by prisoners," and are often expected to put up with it as part of their job.

That's according to a wide-ranging audit released Wednesday morning by the Office of the Legislative Auditor, which assessed safety risks and procedures in Minnesota Department of Corrections facilities. Auditors visited nine of Minnesota's 11 prisons, interviewing administrators and -- at four locations -- staff, union representatives, and prisoners themselves. 

The report's major findings address incidents of prisoner assaults on other inmates -- which have declined in recent years -- and on prison workers, which increased in 2018 before falling in 2019.

Corrections data on violent assaults are "inconsistent and incomplete," according to the audit, making it hard to draw firm conclusions about trends and potential causes.

The audit does blame "chronic shortages" in prison staffing for causing greater risk of violence against both guards and inmates. Fewer staff means more instances of corrections employees working alone or in small groups with larger groups of inmates, and more employees working overtime hours, leaving them less alert and "more short-tempered," the audit's summary states. 

Being under-staffed also leads to prisons cutting activities such as "therapy, employment, education, and recreation" for inmates, despite research showing those opportunities reduce the rate of violent incidents in prisons. The audit recommends the Department of Corrections track under-staffing and the use of overtime, and continue efforts to recruit and retain employees. 

In the case of Stillwater Correctional Facility -- the state's second-largest, with 1,500-plus inmates -- the audit found staffing levels during Fiscal Year 2019 averaged 289 employees, or 25 below its allocated count of 314.

Stillwater was the site of the 2018 murder of corrections officer Joseph Gomm, the first of an on-duty corrections guard in state history. During that year, prisoner assaults of staff rose to 149, a 33 percent increase from the previous year's 112 assaults. Assault convictions fell back to normal levels during the first half of 2019.

Stillwater, St. Cloud (836 inmates), and Rush City (992 prisoners) are the state's three level-four ("close custody") prisons, while Oak Park Heights (336 inmates) is its only level-five ("maximum custody"). 

In one of the more disturbing findings of the report, female prison workers interviewed for the audit said they are routinely the subject of sexual harassment -- or worse -- without recourse for the perpetrator. Women interviewed at Rush City, Oak Park Heights, and Stillwater said prisoners "constantly" catcall them, "verbally threaten them with sexual assault, or masturbate in front of them." 

That last part is apparently common, and again, often unpunished. As one passage reads [emphasis ours]:

In our site visit interviews, we were told that female staff often do not receive support from their supervisors or fellow staff when prisoners verbally harass them or masturbate in front of them. One staff person told us that staff will sometimes be blamed for prisoner misconduct based on what they wear to work. At one correctional facility, a staff person told us that female staff are simply expected to deal with masturbating prisoners. At another prison, a staff person told us that masturbation is not “taken as seriously as it should be” at their prison. Another staff person related that a fellow officer was asked to “prove” that a prisoner had been masturbating in front of her by describing his private parts. Staff also told us that prisoners that participate in this behavior frequently receive no formal disciplinary consequences.

Is it possible this kind of atmosphere -- which one lieutenant says describes as "just horrible" for new female employees in particular -- might be partly to blame for the department's inability to hire and retain at adequate staffing levels? Maybe? 

The audit's recommendations say the Department of Corrections should "separate disciplinary charge for sexual misconduct against staff and should ensure supervisors support staff that encounter such offenses."

In a letter of response to the audit, Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell says the department agrees "in whole" with the report's findings, which he called "deeply troubling," and that the agency had "already begun implementing a number of the recommendations" in the audit. The audit's findings will be presented at a hearing of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice committee this afternoon.