ST. PAUL-One of Minnesota's toughest prisons has seen a recent increase in attacks on employees and inmates.
In a single weekend in March, assaults by inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights sent 10 employees to the hospital - more injuries than in the previous five years combined.
State Rep. John "Jack" Considine, DFL-Mankato, is looking into it. Considine, a member of the Public Safety and Security Policy Committee, said that three prison staffers contacted him in January about worsening conditions at the prison.
That was before the 10 employees were assaulted in March.
It's an urgent task, he said, to find out why the violence against employees is increasing. "They are no different from police officers in the field. Their safety has got to be protected," said Considine.
According to Minnesota Department of Corrections records, assaults against staffers at Oak Park Heights - where the state's most serious offenders are housed - rose 81 percent from 21 in 2013 to 38 in 2017. Assaults involving weapons tripled to 19.
In most Minnesota prisons, assaults on inmates are dropping as assaults on staffers are increasing.
In all nine state prisons, assaults against staffers increased 21 percent from 2013 to 2017 to 114. At the same time, assaults by inmates of other inmates fell by almost half to 497.
Going against the trend
Both have increased at Oak Park Heights. The 81 percent hike in staff assaults was one of the highest percentage gains in the state. And assaults against inmates also increased, rising 38 percent.
Prison staffers sign contracts that forbid them from talking to reporters. But the Pioneer Press was able to contact a former guard, present-day guard, former nurse and one other employee, all speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation against them or people they know.
They provided photos of injured guards. They blamed the increase in violence on more lax policies at the prison, including cutbacks in the use of solitary confinement.
Considine said that is the same complaint that three employees made to him. "They said solitary confinement is too lax," he said.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald said that the rules that reduce the use of solitary confinement were changed in 2016. Prisons across the state changed the rules to fit national guidelines - they were not changed only at Oak Park Heights.
"We cannot attribute a single cause to the increase," said Fitzgerald. She said that possible reasons might be "mental illness, personal vendettas, gang activity or related street incidents spilling over into our facilities."
She said the change of the solitary confinement rules "has not been substantiated" as a cause of the violence.
The Department of Corrections did not respond to requests to interview the warden at Oak Park Heights.
A violent week raises questions
In an Oak Park Heights prison melee on March 23, inmates assaulted prison employees, sending five to the hospital. Two days later, a single inmate injured five more. In each incident, one inmate was injured.
Considine said those attacks could be a fluke. "That weekend was a real aberration. I would not call it a trend," he said.
"We have had a couple of weekends that were explosive, but now we need to take a deep breath and find out what the investigation says."
Considine said that out of the 232 uniformed employees at the prison, comparatively few are injured in assaults. Out of 38 assaults on staffers in fiscal year 2017, two resulted in harm, according to department records.
The search for a reason
In the first half of fiscal year 2018, which began July 1, 2017, one staffer was injured out of 17 assaults. But the 10 staffers injured in March will likely make fiscal 2018 one of the worst years on record for assaults on employees.
Considine said other as-yet-unexplained factors might be causing an increase in violence.
"We might be concentrating more of the bad actors in one spot," he said. "Or there might be other special circumstances now."