Minnesota prison program up in air after guard's death
By YOUSSEF RDDAD, Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Department of Corrections said Friday the future of a vocational program that teaches welding and other skills at a state prison is uncertain after a prison officer was bludgeoned to death.
Joseph Gomm, 45, died of blunt force injuries last week after an inmate allegedly attacked him while in an industrial building housing the vocational program at the state’s flagship prison in Stillwater. Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy said the department is reviewing possible changes for the program, which gives prisoners access to tools that may be used as weapons.
“The floor that Officer Gomm was killed in will not be utilized within this administration,” Roy said Friday, stopping short of detailing possible changes.
Roy also said he plans to lobby lawmakers for initiatives like adding live-streaming cameras and funding for more prison staff.
Authorities say 42-year-old inmate Edward Muhammad Johnson is suspected of attacking Gomm. He has been moved to the state’s highest security prison in Oak Park Heights. Johnson has been serving time on a nearly 29-year sentence for second-degree murder in 2002 and was set for possible release in 2022.
Prosecutors in Washington County say they plan to file criminal charges after a state investigation into Gomm’s killing concludes.
At least three corrections officers have resigned following Gomm’s death, and a wave of guards in the “double digits” have taken leaves of absences, according to DOC.
The union representing Minnesota prison employees has long complained about facilities being understaffed.
Union leaders said in a statement Friday that prisons have “dangerously low numbers” of correctional officers working at them. They called on state officials and lawmakers to enact policy changes and add more officers.
“We will not let Joseph Gomm die in vain,” the statement said. “We want to ensure that every person who works in corrections can come home safely, and that we can keep our institutions and communities safe.”
An Associated Press review of state data showed assaults on staff at Stillwater more than doubled in 2018, with 59, including 11 with a weapon. That’s up from 27 assaults, including three with weapons, the prior year.
Roy said it’s difficult to speculate on the increase. He said risk assessments on who might become dangerous are “not perfect.”
“We have not been asleep at the wheel when it comes to staff safety,” Roy said. “It is a daily concern for us.”
The Stillwater prison, which is one of Minnesota’s higher security facilities, houses nearly 1,600 prisoners and employs 347 uniformed staff, according to DOC. Roy confirmed Gomm was the only officer on duty in the industrial building the day he died.
Gomm is believed to be the first Minnesota correctional officer to be killed while on duty, and his funeral Thursday drew thousands of law enforcement officers.
Stillwater has remained on lockdown since the fatal incident. No timetable has been set on when the order will be lifted.
“We’re going to get back to operating, we’re going to do that thoughtfully, we’re going to do that sensitive to the needs of staff, and I fully accept those concerns from officers’ families,” Roy said.
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