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'We Cannot Sacrifice Safety': Corrections Commissioner Says Safety Inside Prisons Paramount

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Safety and security for officers is the top priority for the new head of corrections. Just last July, Minnesota had its first corrections officer killed in the line of duty.

WCCO got a rare first look inside Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater, since Officer Joe Gomm was killed. Nearly 1,600 offenders are housed there.

Behind the prison doors is where offenders live, eat and learn. And it's where corrections officers work to oversee them. Paul Schnell has taken the reins as Commissioner of Minnesota's corrections system.

"There's no doubt there's challenges. We need to deal with the safety and security of the people who come to work here every day," Commissioner Schnell said.

He knows correction officer safety is paramount inside Stillwater State Prison. A convicted murderer is accused of attacking Officer Joe Gomm with a hammer in July, killing him.

"I recognize the pain that exists," Schnell said.

The attack happened in an industry building where offenders make products and learn job skills.

Officers had sounded the alarm. They felt the program came at the cost of their safety.

"Whether it's MINNCORR or any other program, we cannot sacrifice the safety of our staff. We can't sacrifice the safety of other people who are housed here because of the need to operate some program. We can't do that, we have to make sure we're meeting the basic needs and the most basic needs that any of us have is safety," Schnell said.

Schnell has listened to the concerns of officers, their families and offenders.

Just two months after Gomm's death, Officer Joe Parise died of a medical emergency while responding to an attack on another officer. Their deaths followed repeated attacks on officers in Minnesota prisons.

Schnell says he's committed to filling vacant spots and elevating staffing levels.

"If you can't do that how do we ever get to the point where we're talking about the big stuff," Schnell said.

Schnell believes education and programming inside prisons keep offenders engaged. They need the staff to operate it. He's looking at creative ways to incentivize people to work for the department of corrections and to retain them. And he'll look to the legislature for funding. A budget request is due mid-February.

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