It was described as a great honor and a historic first: a Minnesota House of Representatives committee would hold a public hearing inside the walls of a state prison.
But the February 2019 hearing was so expensive for the Department of Corrections — costing $20,000 — and so disruptive to daily operations of the Minnesota Correctional Facility Stillwater that department brass discouraged a request from legislators to hold additional hearings at other state prisons.
“There is a cost of doing business, but you can’t do that on any type of regular or sustainable basis,” Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said last week, though he supported the original idea. “It brings attention in a way that you don’t get otherwise. Certainly tours help, but having an actual legislative hearing there does make a difference. It prompted people to think about prison as a real place. For a lot of folks, corrections is the back room side of criminal justice.”
But the cost and disruption were such that three additional hearings planned to be held at facilities in St. Cloud, Shakopee and Oak Park Heights were refused by the department. And when told about the expense, Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, agreed that his Corrections subcommittee should not have other hearings inside state prisons.
“My mouth dropped open when I heard what it was going to cost,” said Considine, who also said he doesn’t regret the initial Feb. 6 hearing. “It had never been done before and we went in a little blind.”
A ‘significant disruption’ for Stillwater prison
Documents released by the department in response to a Data Practices Act request show the high level of preparations required to host legislators, staff, reporters and — outside the prison itself via a video feed — members of the general public. Security was increased; the movement of inmates was curtailed; neighboring police agencies were enlisted to help outside the prison perimeter; and sign language interpreters were contracted, among other impacts.
Held in the aftermath of the deaths of corrections officers Joseph Gomm and Joe Parise, the hearing focused on staff and inmate safety. Gomm died after an attack by an inmate at Stillwater and Parise died of a heart attack suffered while rushing to help a colleague being assaulted at Oak Park Heights.
The hearing was held in the Offender Gym, with only the legislators, staff and seven members of the news media admitted. The only inmate to attend was a reporter from the prison newspaper, the Prison Mirror. The 19 members of the public who attended had to watch from the Warden’s House, where they met with some committee members afterward.
In his memo before the hearing, Assistant Warden Victor Wanchena wrote that “we will be delaying movements inside the facility when moving outside guests and media to and from the gym. The goal is not to interfere with the daily operations of the facility, but understand the hearing will cause some disruptions.”
Schnell said that while he welcomed the hearing, he said he eventually concluded that additional hearings would be too disruptive. His senior staff estimated the February hearing cost the department about $20,000. That came after Deputy Commissioner Michelle Smith asked staff members who had handled arrangements how much it cost. That came on July 11.
“Can you send me some general cost $$ numbers so we can estimate how much that hearing cost DOC,” she wrote to then-Stillwater Warden Eddie Miles (now at St. Cloud) and others. Those numbers might include information technology infrastructure; transportation to and from the capitol; staffing in addition to normal operations; overtime; tactical teams; intelligence and outside police help. Both Washington County and the city of Bayport provided police outside the prison grounds.
Smith also asked for “any details that might not come with a cost but required significant disruption to the facility or workload (i.e. facility lockdown).”
Why was she asking for that information five months after the hearing? “There is a request to do another one, possible three more of these as early as July 31 at SCL and other facilities around the department,” she wrote. “I need to articulate the impact this will have.” SCL is the St. Cloud prison.
A data practices act ‘debacle’
And what was the response to Smith’s request?
Other than two emails asking for clarification, there were no additional documents released by the department in response to a DPA request submitted on August 5, just three weeks after Smith’s memo was sent. After follow up questioning from MinnPost about whether the department’s response was complete, the department said many responsive documents had been deleted from the department’s email server.
“Due to the department’s email retention schedule, there is no longer a copy of the response,” wrote Aaron Swanum, an information officer for the agency.
Schnell last week called the deletions a mistake and a “debacle,” resulting from department communications staff failing to place a hold on deletions with information technology staff. He said he has ordered a review of department procedures related to requests for public documents.
Had the request been fulfilled more quickly, the department’s 60-day retention schedule would not have come into play. But Schnell said the DPA request was initially sent to the Stillwater prison, where staff had just responded to Deputy Commissioner Smith’s request. Schnell said staff at the prison thought they had already responded to the request for information and didn’t immediately respond.
Only a follow up from MinnPost caused the DOC’s communications staff to follow up. By then, the documents had been deleted, Schnell said. “One hand did not know what the other hand was doing,” he said. “There has to be someone centrally responsible. That didn’t happen. I want to correct this stuff. I want to do it right.”
Matt Ehling, the executive director of Public Record Media, a nonprofit that promotes open government and the use of the Data Practices Act, said the act doesn’t specifically demand that agencies retain documents once a request for them has been made.
Still, “the agency’s actions here sound pretty shameless,” Ehling said. “Like a lot of things, the (Data Practices Act) should have a provision requiring the government to hold requested records until the request is finalized, but it doesn’t,” Ehling said. “Even without language in the DPA specifying that data should be retained once a request comes in, standard practices is for agencies to do just that. Once the request is routed to the person responsible for gathering the responsive data, they should be preserving that data, even if the retention schedule says it could be destroyed.”
Ehling said that had the data been requested as part of potential litigation, an agency would be vulnerable to court sanctions for destroying evidence.
‘There are better ways to be supportive’
Rep. Marion O’Neill of Maple Lake is the ranking Republican on the Corrections subcommittee. She opposed the prison hearing when it was scheduled and says the cost reports confirmed her concerns.
“Every penny is precious for the DOC,” she said, pointing out that prisons are required to feed inmates for $2 per meal. And the Stillwater prison was essentially locked down during the hearing, something that is hard on inmates and staff. Moreover, visiting the facility during such a lockdown does not give lawmakers a realistic look at prison conditions.
“It was nothing like a day-in-the-life of prison,” she said. “If they wanted the committee to experience a prison, there are better ways to do that.” O’Neill said she has been to every state prison at least once except for the minimum security boot camp in Togo and plans to visit that facility near the Canadian border this summer.
Taking a hard look at prison safety after the deaths of Gomm and Parise was important, she said, “but there are better ways to be supportive.”
Considine is a former behavior analyst at the state Security Hospital in St. Peter and was the program director and counselor at the Blue Earth County jail. He knows about attacks on staff from first hand experience and wanted prison staffing and security to be highlighted. That was the reason for the hearing inside the Stillwater prison, he said.
“At the time, we’d had a number of violent incidents,” Considine said. “It was something that seemed to be a crisis and we needed to highlight them. I think it was on the front page of almost every paper in the state,” he said of the hearing.
Though the facility was mostly locked down during the hearing — a way to keep staff costs as low as possible — “you have to plan for every contingency,” said Schnell. “Despite the fact that it ended up being a fine event, you still have to plan.”
He said that given the recent public attention to prisons and criminal justice, there was a possibility of what he called direct action: protests from advocates. He said it hasn’t happened in Minnesota but elsewhere in the U.S. there have been protests aimed at corrections commissioners, even at their homes, and they have been increasing.
Yet he welcomes the increased attention and scrutiny of corrections departments. “There has been a shift for corrections agencies in the levels of expected transparency, the increase in advocacy in general, the interest on both sides of the aisle in criminal justice issues around effectiveness and cost and sustainability,” Schnell said. “These are all real legitimate questions. That’s why there is great value in many of these things. I wish we could be more responsive. But ultimately we have to balance that with our long-term interests of the state, which is in service of the people who are there.
“The last thing we want to do is be in a position where we’re closing down programs that ultimately help and create the kind of transformation that we say we’re committed to trying to achieve,” he said. “So how do we balance the legislative benefit and bringing that attention against the services we feel we need to provide to folks who are inside the prison.”
Correction: This story was corrected to show that the department deletes emails after 60 days instead of six months.