In Minnesota, Security Changes Planned to Make a Prison Safer

STILLWATER, Minn. (AP) - The segregation unit at the Stillwater state prison can be a nightmare.

Inmates chatter and shout all night long, so many find it easier to sleep during the day, according to the officials who watch over them. They throw urine and feces at guards through the open bars of their cells. Staffers are under constant stress.

Millions of dollars have been spent converting the state prison in Faribault into a correctional institution. But the former state hospital is more than 100 years old. The cells have no toilets, so inmates can't be locked inside. There are hidden corners that video cameras don't see.

A multimillion-dollar initiative is under way to rebuild and update the two prisons to make them safer and keep pace with increasing inmate populations.

A preliminary request by the Corrections Department, which the Legislature will consider next year, includes $18.5 million for Stillwater's segregation unit and $41 million to complete and expand Faribault.

The Legislature this year allocated $3.5 million for design and prep work for the new Stillwater unit and $85 million to begin the massive work needed at Faribault.

But new funds for Stillwater and Faribault will compete against many other requests for state building funds. Lawmakers expect the total available for capital projects this coming session will reach, at most, $900 million. Already, agencies and local governments have submitted requests totaling nearly $1.9 billion.

But Sen. Keith Langseth, chairman of the Capital Investment Committee, said both prison projects are compelling. Rebuilding the Stillwater segregation unit seems like the most immediate need, he said, but Corrections will need to make the case for providing $41 million for Faribault next year rather than waiting until the current phase of the building project is completed.

Stillwater's segregation unit houses violent inmates who have assaulted other prisoners, have been caught with contraband or have committed other serious infractions in prison. Other inmates there need extra monitoring because they've hurt themselves or might do so.

The segregation unit is a converted turn-of-the-century cellblock. It goes up four stories and has no elevator, so guards have to figure out ways to move potentially struggling prisoners down several flights of long, narrow metal stairs.

"Civil War technology in 2005," Lt. Tim Putzier said.

The new unit would have cellblocks that face out, which would reduce the noise, and it would be only two floors high, accessible by ramps. It also would have an observation pod to allow guards to watch prisoners from a central location.

"There will be no dark corners where we can't see," Stillwater Warden Lynn Dingle said.

Water and power to the cellblocks would have a centralized shut-off, so when prisoners try to flood their cells, guards could turn off the water without having to enter the cells. The doors to the new unit would be solid with openings for food trays and other necessities, so inmates couldn't toss urine and feces out at passing prisoners and staff.

The new unit also would have a separate indoor recreation area and day room for the one hour a day that prisoners are allowed to exercise. If the weather is bad, all prisoners currently can do for exercise is walk up and down the short, 3-foot wide corridors outside their cells.

Like Stillwater's segregation unit, the minimum- and medium-security prison at Faribault is serving a function it was never designed for.

Faribault began more than 100 years ago as a state hospital. Before it became a prison, most residents were mentally retarded. As they were moved into community-based housing in the late 1980s, the state spent millions of dollars to convert the sprawling campus into a prison.

But Warden Connie Roehrich lists several ongoing problems with the current design. Each of the many buildings is a bit different, making it tough to shuffle staff. The food service is inefficient and uses many serving locations. It's impossible to lock prisoners in their cells because the cells have no toilets. Guards can't always see all the prisoners in a building at any one time. The geriatric ward isn't designed for vulnerable prisoners. And the old buildings contain lead and asbestos.

The new buildings would be in a "K" design, which allows for lockable prisoner cells on three spokes. Officers could monitor prisoners from a centralized security pod where the three wards meet, allowing a lower guard-to-prisoner ratio and lower operating costs.

There would be one foodservice building, allowing for more efficient and quicker feeding of prisoners. And the geriatric ward would have a secure nursing home.

Corrections officials acknowledge that some Minnesotans might want their prisons to be tougher, not more comfortable. Roehrich counters that safer prisoners mean safer guards, and mutual respect benefits everyone inside - and those outside - prison walls.

"You still have got to treat people like humans," she said.

© 2005 Associated Press