ST. PAUL — Critical staffing shortages at Minnesota prisons fueled unsafe conditions for inmates and guards, according to a state audit released Wednesday, Feb. 26.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor launched the report aimed at determining how safe the state's facilities are for prisoners and for staff who work there after two corrections officers died in the line of duty in 2018. And they also sought to examine the steps being taken to ensure safety and security at the state facilities.

While violent incidents between inmates and officers as well as among prisoners decreased since 2018, auditors said significant prison staff turnover since then had fueled concerning conditions for inmates and guards.

Through a series of interviews, tours, analysis of Department of Corrections data and new surveys of both inmates and corrections staff, auditors determined that staff shortages at the state's 11 state correctional facilities led to officers working significant overtime hours. And increasingly, those officers were forced by supervisors to work overtime hours rather than volunteering to do so.

The probe also discovered pervasive bullying and harassment among prison staff and highlighted the sexual harassment that women working in men's prisons face from inmates.

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Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell on Wednesday told lawmakers that he accepted the results of the probe and had begun efforts at the department to begin fixing some of the concerns highlighted in the report. And he issued an apology on behalf of himself and the department for the harassment that prison employees had faced.

"The report highlights troubling realities. I accept the findings and recommendations in full because they reflect reality," Schnell said. "And I recognize that defensiveness, blame-laying and minimalization won't make corrections facilities safer."

Above-average turnover after 2018 violent incidents

Even factoring for typical annual turnover, the Oak Park Heights prison last year lost 17.7% of its staff compared to the year prior, the report showed. And Stillwater reported a 15.1% staff turnover in the same time period.

Of those surveyed for the auditor's report, 91% of corrections staff members said worker shortages were frequent at the facilities where they worked. And prison administrators reported that they have too few workers to cover all shifts without resorting to overtime, sometimes forced overtime, for corrections staff.

Prison staff asked to work overtime put in almost four times the additional work hours in fiscal year 2019 than they did in fiscal year 2013.

Staff shortages create unsafe situations for inmates and guards, both groups told the auditors. Infractions that would be addressed with additional staff or less strained staff are allowed in some cases to occur without consequences.

Short of guards, some prisons have turned to cutting recreational activities, which both inmates and staff said caused stress to build up in inmates and fueled additional violent incidents.

Lawmakers on Wednesday called for immediate action to reduce the burden on officers. And Schnell said while new contracts with unions that represent the guards would help, there would still be work to do at the department to boost staffing.

“We need to get this done now," Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Castle Rock, said. "We can’t wait any longer."

Bullying, sexual harassment among prison employees' concerns

Corrections staff surveyed also cited concerns about issues between workers at the facilities. Nearly one-third of corrections staff also reported that bullying and harassment among staff were prevalent in the facilities where they worked. The number was greater among African American workers and female staff members.

While sexual assaults of female corrections staff by prisoners was relatively rare between 2016 and 2019, reports of sexual harassment was common. Female staff at Oak Park Heights, Rush City, and Stillwater facilities said they were regularly subjected to sexual offenses by prisoners, including being catcalled, threatened with sexual assault or made to watch prisoners masturbating.

The corrections staff members said their concerns were often not taken seriously by superiors and prisoners were seldom disciplined for the acts.

Schnell on Wednesday apologized to the female guards who were harassed and said the department would crack down on similar instances in the future.

Other key findings from the report:

- Data about violence in state facilities in inconsistent and incomplete, which makes it hard to discern a complete picture of the events.

- Violent incidents between inmates decreased slightly over the last four years, the report showed. But underreporting of incidents likely contributed to that figure. Reported instances of assault between inmates, fighting and convictions for assault causing bodily harm all decreased between fiscal year 2016 and fiscal year 2019.

- Sixty-three percent of prisoners surveyed for the report said they felt "very safe" or "a little safe" in Minnesota correctional facilities as compared to 33% that said they felt "a little unsafe" or "very unsafe." The responses varied by facility and by the security level of the prisons.

- The survey also found that 73% of prisoners reported that inmates physically harmed each other "sometimes" or "very often."

- Facilities that are more than a century old in Shakopee and St. Cloud create conditions that can exacerbate potential dangers for prisoners and guards. The auditors suggested that the Department of Corrections work with the Legislature on a plan for updating or building new facilities.