Coworkers vow to fight for more staff at Minnesota prison where guard was killed

STILLWATER, Minn. --As corrections officer Joseph Gomm was remembered for his "kind soul" and dedication Thursday, July 19, his coworkers vowed that they would amp up their fight for more prison staffing.
Joseph Gomm, who died after being attacked with a weapon by an inmate serving time for murder at the Stillwater state prison on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Corrections

STILLWATER, Minn. --As corrections officer Joseph Gomm was remembered for his “kind soul” and dedication Thursday, July 19,  his coworkers vowed that they would amp up their fight for more prison staffing.

Gomm, a 16-year veteran of the Minnesota Department of Corrections,  was killed Wednesday afternoon by an inmate at the Stillwater state prison.

Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy noted Thursday that a request to the Legislature for a staffing increase went unfulfilled last session, but he added it was not clear whether Gomm’s death could be attributed to staffing levels.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, which represents Minnesota correctional officers, says inadequate staffing in the state’s prisons is a concern.

“This is a murder that will never have to happen again … and as soon as our brother’s laid to rest, we will fight for more staffing in his name,” John Hillyard, president of the local AFSCME Council 5 Corrections Policy Committee, told a crowd at the union’s convention in Boston on Thursday.

Prison staff on Thursday were meeting with counselors and were “struggling” to deal with Gomm’s death, Roy said.

“We have a very emotional department right now,” Roy said.

Residents of the Blaine neighborhood where the 45-year-old Gomm lived since 2002 said Thursday he was fairly quiet and mostly kept to himself.

Gomm’s brother, Anthony,  told KSTP-TV, “Joe had one of the kindest souls, heart, and was dedicated to his job, life, and family.”

Coworkers turned to social media to remember him.

“He worked in my unit for years and made sure I got out safely to see my loved ones everyday,” Theresa Herberg-Dunn wrote on Facebook. “I never let a day go by where I didn’t thank him for that! … Rest in Peace Joe and God bless your family!”

Gomm was a “stand-up professional corrections officer who was well-respected by his peers,” Roy said. “He was an example to others.”

Gomm was working in the prison’s industry building when he was attacked by an inmate at about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. The industry building houses areas for carpentry, welding and other work assignments for the inmates, Roy said.

Sources say a hammer was used in the attack, but Roy would not confirm that. Gomm was rushed to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, where he was pronounced dead. He died of homicide due to blunt-force trauma, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is investigating the attack.

Corrections officers are not armed with guns, but they do carry pepper spray and radios to call for assistance.

The BCA identified the inmate suspect as Edward Muhammad Johnson. The 42-year-old is serving a 29-year sentence for the 2002 murder of Brooke Elizabeth Thompson, who was staying with him in Bloomington.

Johnson was taken to the Minnesota Correctional Facility - Oak Park Heights after the attack and placed in segregation. As a precaution, all prisons in the Department of Corrections system were placed on lockdown after the attack.

The lockdown situation is being assessed daily, Roy said. He said staff have not seen “accelerated behaviors” from other inmates.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said Thursday that it could take several days for the BCA to refer the case to his office for a charging review. The BCA is interviewing dozens of witnesses to the attack.

Orput’s office generally prosecutes about 30 inmates a year - about 25 from Stillwater and five from the Minnesota Correctional Facility - Oak Park Heights. That number dropped to 17 inmates in 2017, but some of those cases are still under investigation, he said.

“I have to remind people that we’re not dealing with the Sisters of Carondelet here,” Orput said. “We’re dealing with major felony offenders and if left to their own devices, they often act out in the selfish ways that got them into prison. … We’re prepared for it, but we can’t necessarily prevent all these.”

Orput also offered his condolences to Gomm’s family and co-workers.

“These folks have been through a really devastating incident,” he said. “All I can bring is an aggressive prosecution - and I’m bringing it.”

A recent analysis found the Department of Corrections was understaffed and needed to add about 150 officers systemwide.

Inadequate staffing is a concern, according to AFSCME Council 5, which represents prison employees.

“We have lobbied the Legislature for increased staffing and funding to help alleviate these shortages only to have them voted down by politicians who do not support the safety and security of our correctional staff,” the union said in a Thursday statement.

A corrections officer at the Stillwater prison was assaulted earlier this year. The nearby Oak Park Heights facility has seen a number of incidents recently where employees were injured.

Thousands of members of AFSCME, of which Gomm was a member, stood in silence for Gomm on Thursday during the international convention in Boston.

Officials with the Minnesota Corrections Association said Gomm’s killing marked “a difficult time for our community.”

“The minute we learned of this unprovoked attack on Officer Gomm our hearts sank,” officials said in a statement.

A GoFundMe site has been established to help Gomm’s family; donations can be made at  www.gofundme.com/officer-joe-gomm-fund.

 

Tad Vezner contributed to this report.