The Stillwater prison was placed on emergency lockdown Sunday after about 100 prisoners in a living unit declined to return to their cells, according to a Minnesota Department of Corrections press release.
No injuries have been reported.
Staff have been removed from the housing unit’s common areas at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater. Two correctional officers are safe in the unit’s secure control area and “in communication with facility command personnel,” the press release said.
The department said it has activated a crisis negotiation team and deployed a special operations response team “out of an abundance of caution.”
Representatives for the inmates say the prisoners are peacefully protesting because recent conditions have become intolerable.
David Boehnke, a spokesman for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, said that prisoners are protesting because they have no air conditioning and fresh water in their cells, are not allowed to take showers, and are only allowed out of their cells for an hour a day.
In addition, Boehnke said, visiting days have been slashed from four days a week to one.
He blames these restrictions on administration shortcomings and a staffing shortage crisis that has been going on for years.
Boehnke, who was outside the prison on Sunday afternoon, said he’s seen SWAT teams in full military gear and assault rifles enter the prison. He said there were dozens of ambulances and fire trucks parked outside the prison.
Before the phones were cut off, Boehnke said his organization had spoken to several inmates who were adamant that they were being peaceful and protesting so that they can have their basic needs met.
During a recorded conversation the organization had with inmate Philip Vance, the prisoner gave details of the ongoing protest.
“Nobody is being held against their will,” Vance said. “The guys here are peacefully protesting the events that occurred during the past few weeks and months. We’ve been locked in our cells the last couple of days with record temperatures, no access to ice, water, showers, to our families.”
Instead, he said, prisoners have only been let out of their cells to work.
“It got to the point where we decided to take a peaceful protest, to take a stand.”
He said that the two prison guards who remained in a secure area inside the unit called the “bubble” were told they could leave if they wanted to and nobody would stop them.
“Nobody has been threatened, nothing has been thrown, nobody has been hurt,” he said. “We are going about our day as we normally do. People are playing cards. The hot water in the shower is off but guys are hopping in the cold water.”
The protest highlights what’s really happening at the prison, said AFSCME Council 5 Interim Executive Director Bart Andersen in a statement Sunday, stating that “chronic understaffing” has caused restricted programming and recreation time for the inmates.
“Our union believes to our core that our correctional facilities cannot have transformational offender programming without sufficient facility security, we can and must have both,” he said, noting that his organization has visited nearly all the correctional facilities in the state and found the issue widespread.
“We have continued to hear firsthand from hundreds of staff about the critical need to raise wages for correctional officers and staff in order to hire more talented people to come work in this honorable profession and protect public safety and retain the honorable workers we have currently,” he wrote. “Without more staffing in our correctional facilities with talented people, we will continue down this unacceptable road of staff assaults, offenders controlling sections of our prisons, and more. Our union members must be part of the solution and we will continue to raise our ideas and concerns at all levels because the lives of all correctional facility staff depend on it.”
A Department of Corrections spokesperson could not be reached for comment Sunday afternoon.