Minnesota shutdown adds stress to prisons
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - The 1,600 or so men who live at Minnesota's Stillwater prison aren't getting much exercise these days.
When they're not in their 6-foot by 9-foot cells, they can't go to the gym to lift weights, punch a boxing bag or ride stationary bikes -- the gym is closed due to a state government shutdown that's now in its fifteenth day.
So the men -- convicted rapists, murderers and drug dealers -- walk in circles outside in the yard, waiting for government leaders to approve a budget that would return their limited lives in confinement to normal.
"We need to keep the fellas busy," said John Hillyard, a corrections officer at the prison. "When they're busy, they're less likely to cause trouble."
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and legislative leaders were attempting on Friday to iron out details in a two-year budget agreement that could end the shutdown within days.
The politicians announced a tentative agreement on Thursday, but no official action has changed the reality on the ground where state parks were shuttered and most state government offices closed when the shutdown began.
At Stillwater prison, inmates can still play softball and basketball outside, but Hillyard says the shutdown has interrupted predictable patterns.
Before the shutdown, many inmates sweated inside the gym, prayed at worship services and chatted with parents, children or friends during scheduled visits. Those activities stopped when the state government ceased normal activities on July 1.
As Hillyard patrols inside the flagstone walls of the nearly century-old prison, the veteran officer says he has seen an uptick in threatening behavior since the shutdown began.
"They're becoming more brazen about what they'll say and what they'll do," said Hillyard, who is also president of the union representing state prison guards.
AFFECTS PRISONER MOOD
David Crist, a Minnesota corrections department deputy commissioner who once served as prison warden at Stillwater, disagreed with Hillyard's assessment.
"It's not that different than it is normally," Crist said, adding that no guards have been furloughed, and all prison work assignments, sex offender and chemical dependency treatment programs were continuing.
Crist said he walked a cell block at Stillwater a few days ago and spoke with about 30 inmates, finding the mood "better than I expected, but not what I hoped it would be."
The men told him they missed the gym, the worship services and visits, which is one reason the department asked a state judge on Friday to reinstate all three, he said.
Department of Corrections Spokesman John Schadl said the department had not expected to ban the practice of organized religion or visits for an extended period of time.
In the meantime, prisoners like Andrew Bennewitz are getting lonely.
Bennewitz, 21, is serving a 15-year sentence at a St. Cloud facility for attempting to kill his stepfather in 2007. His father, grandmother or other relatives usually visit weekly.
"This is his lifeline to the outside world," said Pamela Muldoon, his stepmother, who has visited him several times. "We can give him a brief hug before we sit down and leave. There has been some tearing up."
That personal connection to someone on the outside can ease inmate tension, said Russel Balenger of Amicus, a Minnesota nonprofit group that encourages people to strike up personal relationships with incarcerated men and women.
The group's 280 volunteers make monthly visits to inmates that he believes reduces the likelihood that they will commit more crimes when they are released.
"Prisoners feel like they are cut off, and when they feel they are cut off from the community they don't have much investment in keeping the community safe when they return," Balenger said.
Bennewitz missed an important visit due to the shutdown. His brother had planned to stop by before joining the Army National Guard. That visit won't be possible now for another seven months because of boot camp training.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this