Minnesota State Prisons in Disarray

A report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) paints a dire picture of Minnesota’s correctional system.

St Cloud Prison

A report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) paints a dire picture of Minnesota’s correctional system. The report found “persistent staffing shortages, heavy overtime use, suspensions of prisoner activities, unprofessional workplace relationships, limited oversight, and outdated infrastructure” in Minnesota’s 11 prison facilities operated by the State Department of Corrections. These shortcomings, according to the report, “significantly reduce safety for both prisoners and staff.”

Democrat Governor Tim Walz’s Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell promised that his department is taking corrective action.

Three common problems stood out to lawmakers during a hearing about the OLA report: First, “sexual offenses against female staff by prisoners occur frequently, but are often ignored or downplayed by supervisors and coworkers;” Second, “one in three prison staff said that bullying and harassment among staff is a problem at their prison;” and Third, “chronic shortages of correctional officers and the increasing use of overtime at several prisons have affected the safety of prisoners and staff.” 

Schnell said his department was working on solutions, which included “limiting the use of restrictive housing as the primary disciplinary tool”—though Schnell didn’t say exactly how his department would get tough on misbehaving prisoners. 

It should be noted that things weren’t always this bad in the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Violence in Minnesota prisons peaked in 2018, after growing steadily worse for years, and hasn’t dropped significantly since then. Critics point to mismanagement of government by the Mark Dayton administration as the primary cause—which has led to problems in the Minnesota Department of Human Services as well. 

Yet the administration of Tim Walz has also opened itself up for criticism on these issues. For example, Walz appointed a DFL lobbyist, Sarah Walker, to a high-ranking role in the Department of Corrections. The lobbyist stepped down after it emerged that she was still doing private lobbying work on the public dime. Walker’s husband was also being investigated because of a charity that may have been misusing funds granted to him by the state government.