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Minnesota jail reaches resolution with inmates who refused to return to cells during heatwave

A Minnesota prison ‘uneventfully resolved’ a situation involving about 100 inmates in a housing unit who did not want to return to their cells on Sunday, in what a former inmate called an act of ‘self-preservation’ amid dangerously high temperatures in the region.

The situation was “calm, peaceful and stable throughout the day,” a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said in a statement, adding that “individuals incarcerated in the unit expressed dissatisfaction” because the he understaffed facility had to limit the time inmates spent outside their cells.

But defenders positioned outside Stillwater prison, some of whom have family members inside, said inmates were fed up with the excessive heat, lack of air conditioning and limited access to showers and ice during the intermittent lockdowns of the past two months.

The jail is in Bayport, about 25 miles east of Minneapolis, which was on an afternoon heat advisory for temperatures approaching 100 degrees.

A fleet of emergency vehicles are parked outside the jail at the Minnesota-Stillwater Correctional Center in Bayport, Minnesota, September 3, 2023.

“My organization has been getting calls from inmates who are actually inside” starting at 6:30 a.m., said Marvina Haynes of Minnesota Wrongfully Convicted Judicial Reform, whose brother is being held in Stillwater.

“This morning they decided they weren’t going to lock themselves in their cells,” said David Boehnke of the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

The department confirmed the inmates were in lockdown due to the holiday weekend, which means they are being kept in their cells, with “limited access throughout the facility to out-of-cell time for showers, telephone use and leisure”. The facility now remains locked and all inmates have returned to their cells.

The executive director of the union representing Stillwater correctional officers, Bart Andersen, said in a statement that the incident is “rampant and underscores the truth behind the operations of the chronically understaffed Minnesota Department of Corrections.”

Andersen said such conditions bothered inmates due to restrictions on programs and recess times “when there are not enough security personnel to protect the facility.”

Haynes, Boehnke and Cathy Stroud Caldwell said the inmates’ action was an impromptu response to unsafe conditions, including access to drinking water, which they said would be brown in color.

The ministry said these claims “about the lack of potable water at the facility are patently false.”

“They didn’t have time to organize and plan,” Haynes said. “It was just…we’re not going back to that hot cell without clean water and being able to shower.”

Haynes said they hoped to meet with officials “to talk about the conditions inmates live in” and “solutions for the future.”

Intense heat waves that have swept across the country have heightened concerns about prison populations, especially those living in poorly ventilated or air-conditioned facilities.

Two correctional officers have remained in a secure control area and in contact with facility staff since the emergency lockdown began at 8 a.m.

There were no injuries, according to the prison ministry.

Members of a crisis negotiation team and the special operations intervention team were deployed “out of great caution”.

A total of about 1,200 inmates are at the facility just southeast of Stillwater in Bayport, according to department records.

It was built in 1914.

Kevin Reese, founder of a criminal justice organization, Until We Are All Free, described Stillwater as a “pizza oven” in the summer.

He was incarcerated there during the summers of 2006 to 2009.

“It’s a century-old building with no air conditioning, no central air,” Reese said. “The walls sweat.”

New York Post

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