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Advocates for Minnesota inmates say weekslong lockdown 'inhumane'

STILLWATER, Minn.—An inmate-rights group is calling on the Minnesota Department of Corrections to end its lockdown at the Minnesota Department of Corrections — Stillwater, claiming prisoners have been subjected to inhumane conditions since a corrections officer was killed last month.

The lockdown was instituted on July 18, the day corrections officer Joseph Gomm was bludgeoned to death with a hammer and stabbed by inmate Edward Mohammed Johnson, who was serving time for homicide.

For a 20-day period following Gomm's death, prison inmates were not allowed to shower, did not have access to toilet paper and were given only peanut butter and white bread to eat, said Joanna Nunez, a representative of the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

"They sat in those cells for three weeks without laundry, without showers, and sometimes without being released to see the light of day," Nunez said. "That is why we are demanding that the lockdown end immediately."

Minnesota Department of Corrections officials on Monday, Aug. 14, disputed Nunez's account.

Spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald said offenders received showers every three days during the full lockdown and were given new linens and hygiene bags containing soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, envelopes and writing paper.

Fitzgerald said the prison, which is located in Bayport near Stillwater, is in the process of transitioning off of lockdown. Inmates are currently showering every two days, she said. She also noted that they have sinks in their cells.

Meals are approved by a dietitian and meet the nutritional needs as set by FDA guidelines, she said.

Inmate visits also have resumed, she said.

As to when the lockdown will be lifted, Fitzgerald said: "This is a process, and each next step depends on the success of the last step. Coming off a lockdown of this nature in a gradual manner is critical for the safety of our officers and offenders."

Prisons 'militarized'

Nunez said the transition off lockdown did not occur until media reports about the conditions surfaced.

"We want to ensure that people know what conditions there were in Stillwater, what people were having to live through," she said. "The only reason we are seeing some transition out of those conditions is because prisoners spoke out and there was media attention about what is happening."

Prisoners report that the "prison itself became very much militarized" after Gomm's death, Nunez said.

"More (corrections officers) were brought in from other places, and they were pointing guns at them, and walking around armed in a way that they don't normally see," she said.

She said family and friends of inmates would meet on Sunday to discuss possible next steps.

Guards seek resources

Gomm was a 16-year veteran of the Department of Corrections. Thousands of corrections officers from around the U.S. and Canada came to Minnesota to attend his July 26 funeral at North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills.

Since his death, union leaders representing corrections staff have called for more prison officers and changes to inmate discipline rules. Representatives of AFSCME Council 5 say state prisons are understaffed and officers are not properly equipped for the job.

Johnson was charged with second-degree intentional murder and second-degree assault in Gomm's death.