ST. PAUL — Built more than 100 years ago, Minnesota’s Stillwater prison is outdated with a design that could pose a danger for inmates and staff, says a new report released Wednesday, Feb. 26. The report suggests the state develop a plan to replace or rehabilitate its cells.

A 90-page Office of the Legislative Auditor report on prison safety singled out the Stillwater prison — actually in Bayport — and another in St. Cloud for their conditions. The primary residential units at the prisons were built to the standards of more than a century ago — standards that the federal government and states mostly abandoned after the 1950s.

“At some point, the state will have to substantially reinvest in these prisons if it is to keep using them,” the report states.

The report comes a year and half after an inmate at the Stillwater prison killed corrections officer Joseph Gomm in July 2018.

What is wrong with these prisons?

The prisons feature tiers of cells stacked on top of one another, four or five stories high, David Kirchner of the Office of the Legislative Auditor Program Evaluation Division told legislators on Wednesday.

“It’s very challenging,” he said. “It’s difficult to keep track of what is going on in those cells. When there is a fight in a cell and maybe it spills out onto the walkway that goes in front of the cell, and now you have prisoners fighting with one another 35 feet above a concrete floor with a railing in between, and you have staff that are responding to those fights and racing up to separate those prisoners and keep everyone as safe as possible with that drop …”

“It’s not the way that prisons are built anymore, and it’s not the way that we should be keeping prisoners in the long term,” Kirchner said.

The prisons’ designs also make it difficult for corrections officers to monitor inmates. “It is almost impossible for officers based in a central location to see or hear what is occurring in cells far out to the side or high over their heads,” the report states.

Another safety issue: the lack of air conditioning in the living units at the prison. “Temperatures can rise to very uncomfortable levels on the top tiers during hot summer days, particularly in units where the sun shines directly into the large windows on the living unit walls,” the report states. “One warden said he thought the conditions on those days were ‘like an oven’ for prisoners who are in their cells. He said that packing hundreds of prisoners together at such temperatures is practically a recipe for violence.”

Can a switch lessen issue?

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One option under consideration for Stillwater: swapping the prison populations of Stillwater and the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault, DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said.

“Faribault has newer, more buildings, and direct observation versus the tiers, so it’s much safer for our staff, and there’s room there to build,” Schnell said after testifying before a joint hearing of the public safety and criminal justice reform and the corrections committees at the Capitol on Wednesday.

For the past six months, DOC officials have been investigating what it would take to transfer Stillwater’s higher-risk Level 4 prisoners to Faribault and moving Faribault’s lower-risk Level 3 prisoners to the older Stillwater facility, Schnell said.

The Stillwater prison has space to provide intensive programming for medium-security inmates “who are a lower security risk and closer to getting out,” he said. “And we think that could be done with, really, a fairly small investment relative to what it could be if we were to do a full-scale replacement,” Schnell said.

Otherwise, the cost of building a new prison: $300 million to $600 million, he said.

Swapping the prison populations could be done in a year or two, according to Schnell.

“It’s going to require some planning first,” he said. “It’s not going to be as massive a capital investment — we’re going to have to do some security enhancements — but we think it’s something that could be done relatively quickly when you compare it to a replacement.”

‘The starting point’

State Rep. Shelly Christensen, DFL-Stillwater, told the committee that she was very interested in the Stillwater prison’s “infrastructure plans and what that would look like and what that is going to do for our facility. I think this is the starting point for a lot of good things to happen.”

Built in 1914, the Stillwater prison is the state’s largest close-security prison for adult male felons. It houses more than 1,500 inmates.

“We have to do well with the people we are serving, and we really have to make sure the facilities we operate are safe for our staff and those we serve,” Schnell said.