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'This Is A Safety Issue': Staffing Levels At Minnesota Prisons Called Into Question

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- In the largest outbreak in Minnesota's prison system in months, nearly a quarter of the inmates in St. Cloud have COVID-19.

The Department of Corrections reports 242 positive cases right now at that facility alone. As WCCO found, it comes at a time staffing levels inside are being called into question.

The Department of Corrections told WCCO it's working with the Department of Health to get to the bottom of the outbreak in St. Cloud since protocols haven't changed.

They point to a variety of factors at play: growing rates of community spread, needed booster shots as vaccines wear off, along with social distancing and mask compliance issues among staff during break times. They also say environmental factors have played a role as the heating system has started and fresh air isn't an option.

About 80% of Minnesota's prison population is vaccinated. Meanwhile, 65% of corrections workers are.

New COVID-19 concerns at Minnesota prisons come at a time the union representing corrections officers has sounded the alarm over what they call dangerous staffing levels statewide. It's made worse they say through a pandemic that caused some to retire early, unable to feel safe in a difficult setting for a highly-infectious disease.

"This is a department-wide problem, and this is a safety issue," said Dan Gorman, a corrections officer at Stillwater and president of AFSCME Local 600. "Some people chose to made that decision to leave a job they loved and they were committed to, some earlier than they wanted to."

Gorman says in his 16 years at Stillwater prison, he's never seen staff numbers so low.

"They're required to work sometimes 16 hours back-to-back days to make sure we have the coverage needed and necessary to maintain the security levels of these institutions," Gorman said.

Three years after a violent stretch took the lives of two of their colleagues there is fear about the future.

"We as a union have vowed to make sure as a committee that that never happens again, and I feel we're kind of traveling down that same path," Gorman said.

The Department of Corrections acknowledges recruitment and retention has been a challenge through the pandemic. In a statement, it said it's invested in new recruitment efforts.

The statement went on to say: "Recognizing the high number of current officer vacancies, we have looked for ways to ease the burden that forced overtime can take on existing staff. One way some prisons have done that is by occasionally asking non-corrections officer staff to volunteer to fill security posts on rather than forcing officers to work more multiple shifts. These staff members receive security training and appropriate security equipment prior to filling those posts."

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