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Prison Budget Cuts Could Put Public Safety At Risk

By Pat Kessler, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The Minnesota Corrections Department says prison budget cuts proposed by republican majorities in the House and Senate are so deep, public safety is at risk.

It's a claim republicans reject as "irresponsible," but Minnesota prison guards say they are worried about increased violence.

WCCO-TV has obtained video images of violence against guards and inmates at state prisons -- videos that include shocking scenes in facilities across the state.

The video images also show hundreds of prisoners -- and few prison guards.

"At a split second, without notice ... just boom! it happens," said Sgt. John Hillyard, a Stillwater Corrections officer for 17 years. "If this continues to go on, that we keep getting more inmates into Stillwater and not enough correctional officers, somebody is gonna get hurt or killed."

The video obtained by WCCO-TV shows guards sometimes brutally beaten.

Inmates wait for one corrections officer at Rush City; they had boiled coffee in a microwave and laced it with honey to make it stick to his face.

He is brutally kicked and hit by four inmates for 50 seconds before other guards can get there to rescue him.

If republican budget cuts are enacted, more guards could be in danger like that, corrections officials said.

"Public safety will be diminished," said David Crist, facilities director at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and a one-time prison guard.

But the $28 million the legislature is ordering for Minnesota prisons do not include cuts to prison guards.

Corrections officials say they will be forced to cut programs like chemical dependency and sex offender treatment; ironically, corrections officials say, resulting in more violent inmates.

"The budget cuts that are being proposed cannot be absorbed," said Crist. "And I think, ultimately, will create an increased risk to public safety and to the staff that work in these facilities."

The republican chairman of the House Public Safety Committee categorically rejects that.

Rep. Tony Cornish is a life-long law enforcement officer, and currently police chief in Lake Crystal. He said corrections officials are irresponsible to suggest public safety is at risk.

"They will have enough correctional officers to control the prison, because we aren't going to let them cut correctional guards. They'll have enough," he said.

Cornish is proposing other ways for the corrections department to cut budgets, including layoffs of top-level administrators.

Cornish also says the state should consider:

-- Releasing convicts early for good behavior
-- Sending non-citizens back to their home countries to serve their sentences
-- Cutting prisoner health care
-- Shutting down prison wings, or entire facilities like the juvenile facility in Red Wing

But corrections officers say none of that will stop the violence.

Two weeks ago, a lone guard at South Dakota State Penitentiary was murdered by two inmates who wanted his uniform for an unsuccessful escape attempt.

And just last year, at Stillwater Prison, a violent clash: A riot that nearly spiralled out of control. A handful of unarmed guards fighting to subdue at least 70 inmates.

The state corrections department made a video of the incident, which it will not make public.

In a statement they said "release of the video will endanger the security of the institution."

Guards describe it as a vicious fight in a cell block the length of a football field.

"And you've got to run from one end zone down to the other end zone," Hillyard said. "And as you are running, you realize there's 70 people fighting. And you've got eight people with you. But you still do it, to do your job."

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