Stillwater, MN – Inmates are said to have had clothes “molding on their bodies” as the lockdown at Minnesota’s Stillwater state prison continues past the one-month mark. Conditions which Stillwater inmates have called a “humanitarian crisis” are among the reasons organizers have called for the nationwide 2018 Prison Strike. With human rights violations in prisons being the norm across America, a call for an “improvement to the conditions of prisons” is the first of the strikers’ ten demands.
“Immediate improvement to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned persons.” – First demand of the 2018 Prison Strike
Unicorn Riot's 2018 Prison Strike Coverage:
- Prison Strike 2018: Tipping the Scale of the Conversation
- Prison Slave Labor: A Driving Force in 2018 Prison Strike
- MCF-Stillwater: Prison Officials Create “Humanitarian Crisis”
- Harsh Conditions, Violent Repression: Stoking the Flame of the 2018 Prison Strike
At the understaffed and overcrowded Stillwater Prison in Minnesota (MCF-Stillwater, a facility more than 100 years old with about 1,600 inmates), corrections officer Joseph Gomm was killed by an inmate in mid-July 2018.
Immediately after Gomm was killed, all the prisons in Minnesota went on lockdown. Lockdowns normally consist of inmates having to stay in their cells for a large portion of the day while programs and services they rely on are suspended.
The lockdown persisted for weeks across Minnesota state prisons, eventually getting lifted, except in Stillwater, where it continues.
Throughout August, information communicated from prisoners inside Stillwater with the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (TC-IWOC), detailed the militarized repression by facility administration, collectively punishing the entire prison population since Gomm’s death.
“Our clothes are mildewed because we have only had the chance to wash them once in the last 24 days.” – Carlos, an inmate at MCF-Stillwater
Carlos Smith, an inmate inside Stillwater, told TC-IWOC in early August, that prisoners are “without any basic humane treatment here“. Smith said that inmates had not “received any showers” for over two weeks, and that due to the prison denying access to laundry, their “clothes are mildewed“.
During a recent prison-wide search, prisoners were stripped naked, handcuffed together, and made to sit in the gym as members of the Special Operations Response Team (SORT) walked through with canines and automatic rifles.
“They took two sections, about sixty of us, handcuffed together, naked. Then we sat like that in the gym for an hour and a half while they ransacked our cells” – Carlos
1,600 prisoners were kept in their cells on lockdown for a full twenty days straight after the July 18 incident. In mid-August, an inmate, speaking on the conditions in their cell blocks, said “the stench in the units from the garbage is gagging” and that inmates were forced to ask their “neighbors for toilet paper… [which] is prohibited”.
TC-IWOC released a phone call (audio below) with Tony, another inmate in Stillwater, dated August 11, in which he spoke of prisoners’ struggles since the lockdown began. He also gave some history and opinions on allowing inmates into conversations on how to help the situation.
The statewide lockdowns were lifted earlier in August and by August 21, local corporate news had reported that Stillwater’s lockdown had been lifted. Yet, a day later, an inmate in Stillwater said the lockdown was still in full effect with few changes, one of the minor changes being the allowance of three hours outside one’s cell.
Inmates are saying that although they are now allowed the three hours out, “a disaster is waiting to happen” with the new schedule resembling a solitary unit, as over 100 prisoners have to “compete for access to the phones, washing machines, and showers.” Before the lockdown, inmates had been able to roam away from their cells for 15 hours a day.
“This is just a SHU [Security Housing Unit, i.e. solitary confinement] unit schedule. We now will have to competitively compete for access to the phones, washing machines and showers which is over 100+ prisoners out at one period for three hours. This is a disaster waiting to happen.” – Inmate statement
During the lockdown, for over a month now, there has been no access to the law library, a right guaranteed to prisoners. Inmates say guards have been delaying movement of prisoners by not opening cells during their assigned times to open them, and that guard relationships with inmates are strained.
A prisoner said in a August 22 phone call (audio below) that inmates had no recreation in the yard and were still on “lockdown meals“. The food is brought to the cell blocks in smaller portions and often arrives cold to the inmates’ cells.
Inmates say the prison guard union has proposed to have inmates eat in their cell as opposed to the “chow hall“, which they feel is a bad idea that will produce negative implications for the future. Serving food in this way also poses a health risk to prisoners, since their toilets are also in their cells.
“The most recent proposal from AFSCME is to no longer allow us to go to the chow hall and eat but to have us fed in our cages! I am very concerned because now that the prisoners have no more access to hope, what doom will be produced by this new and brutal reality?” – Inmate statement
Disagreements within the Minnesota Department of Corrections (MN-DOC) leadership, as well as prison guards calling for changes after Gomm’s death, are exacerbating the situation. At least three corrections officers have quit and at least ten have taken a leave of absence since Gomm’s death.
“We have incompetent leadership and we’re all suffering behind it.” – Tony, an inmate at MCF-Stillwater
Since Gomm’s death, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced that the welding shop where Gomm was killed “will not be used during this administration.“
An inmate stated that roughly 80% of the prisoners had been working prior to the lockdown, and now there may be as few as 100 jobs remaining, which would give work to only about 16% of the prison population. “They’re pretty much taking all the jobs out of here.“
The atmosphere in the prison is described as “stressful” and full of tension. For the future of Stillwater, inmates fear “it’s going to get worse” and say that officials are “over-reacting to an isolated incident“.
With the nationwide prison strike going on concurrently, an inmate said in a phone call that he hopes people will start thinking about decarceration: about letting people out during their parole hearing; the problems with technical violations and locking up addicts; and who to vote for when it comes to prison reform.
“I think people need to start waking up to what’s going on inside these prisons with the mass incarceration, the parole violation problems, especially in Minnesota … prison reform, at the end of the day.” – Inmate in MCF-Stillwater
Prisoner advocate Bailey told Unicorn Riot that they had just visited someone in MCF-Stillwater. They said the lockdown was horrible for the inmates, that their clothes were “literally molding on their bodies” and said they felt it was “vital that we rethink the narrative of this incident“:
“We need to be thinking about the ways in which prison staff treats prisoners could have affected this, we need to think about how prison conditions as a whole would have affected this, we need to be thinking about the methods of recourse that people lack inside prison walls. We need to think about what it would feel like to be treated sub-human.“
MCF-Stillwater warden Eddie Miles did not reply to a request for comment.
On the first day of the 2018 Prison Strike, about 50 people shot fireworks off the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) in Minneapolis while incarcerated youth looked down at the banners reading “End Prison Slavery“, “Fire to the Prisons“, and “Stillwater to Attica, Support Rebel Prisoners” (cover image). The speaker featured in the video spoke explicitly about the demands “To recognize the humanity of people within the prison system.“
Read our first two specials on the 2018 Prison Strike:
Earlier this year, Unicorn Riot dropped a video special from the Northern Spark Art Festival in Minneapolis spotlighting one of the exhibits bringing light to banned books in U.S. prisons. In 2017 we released an in-depth report on fighting for alternatives to youth incarceration in Minnesota.