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Prison shutters site of death: Stillwater prison may ‘re-purpose’ workshop where guard was fatally attacked

During a news conference at the Minnesota Department of Corrections headquarters in St. Paul on Thursday, July 19, Commissioner Tom Roy speaks on the killing of Corrections Officer Joseph Gomm by an inmate at Stillwater Prison on Wednesday, July 18. (John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press)1 / 2
Minnesota Department of Corrections Officer Joseph Gomm is seen in an undated courtesy photo. Gomm was attacked by an inmate in an industry building at the Stilllwater state prison and died of blunt-force trauma on July 18, 2018. (Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Corrections)2 / 2

ST. PAUL — The fate of the Stillwater prison industry building where corrections officer Joseph Gomm was reportedly killed by an inmate is now in serious doubt, prison officials said.

"It's fair to say the floor that officer Gomm was killed in will not be utilized within this administration," Minnesota Department of Corrections commissioner Tom Roy said during a press conference at the department's headquarters Friday, July 27. He added that he had "major conversations about repurposing the MINNCORR welding shop."

Gomm was allegedly attacked by convicted murderer Edward Muhammad Johnson in Stillwater prison's MINCORR shop on July 18; Gomm died later that day at Regions Hospital of blunt force trauma. Sources say a hammer was used in the attack.

Charges against Johnson are expected to take several weeks, the Washington County attorney's office has said. The funeral for Gomm was held Thursday.

When questioned about the circumstances surrounding Gomm's death, Roy confirmed that the staff in the shop were one person short that day — and also noted that upgrades to the shop's camera system were still on the department's "to-do list." When asked whether Gomm's attack took place in a camera "blind spot," Roy declined comment, citing an ongoing investigation into the death by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

"It is a challenging building ... a very aged building that has major infrastructure structural needs," Roy said.

But Roy defended inmates' overall access to tools, many of which could be used as improvised weapons.

"The record of incidents involving tools is low," he said, adding that since its inception the state corrections department had allowed tools in the hands of inmates in such industries as farming and shoemaking — and that it helped with the rehabilitative process.

As for the overall prison, Roy released statistics Friday showing that Stillwater had 329 uniformed staff — meaning corrections and canine officers and lieutenants — and 1,594 inmates, a ratio of 4.8 inmates per uniformed staff member.

When asked what the target ratio was, Roy said neither his staff nor national analysts had calculated one.

In response to Roy's press conference, the union representing the state's correctional officers released a statement challenging his statistics.

"We have dangerously low numbers of correctional officers, levels that are far worse than the statistics reported by DOC today. This is unacceptable," the statement by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees read.

An AFSCME official clarified that because the 329 uniformed staff for Stillwater were split between three shifts, the actual ratio of inmates to staff was actually many times higher at any point in time.

"Although the Department of Corrections has communicated during this time of mourning, they have not communicated with us about the safety measures presented today nor given us an opportunity to work with them to find solutions," the statement added.

The Stillwater prison remained in lockdown Friday, as it had been since Gomm's death. Roy said he was working toward easing the facility out of lockdown but didn't give specifics.

Inmate Johnson was moved to a segregated unit in a higher-security state prison in nearby Oak Park Heights following the alleged attack.

Roy also addressed an online change.org petition calling for his resignation. Citing increased assaults and changes to the department's segregation policy, the petition now has nearly 3,000 signatures.

"I don't know who these critics are. I'm not a social media guy. ... I don't plan to resign," Roy said.

State legislators have said they will likely hold a hearing on the circumstances surrounding Gomm's death once the BCA's investigation wraps up. Roy said he spoke with legislators and sensed a receptiveness to increasing department staff levels that he hasn't in the past.

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