Lockdown at Stillwater prison: Inmates demand clean water, ways to stay cool in extreme heat

Protesters at Stillwater Prison on Sept. 4
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Protesters at Stillwater Prison on Sept. 4
Photo by Chris Juhn

Prisoners incarcerated at Stillwater, a maximum-security facility, were placed on lockdown beginning on Sunday, September 3 following an action by some inmates who demanded better living conditions amid a near-record-breaking heatwave. 

According to those close to prisoners incarcerated at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater, inmates at the B-East unit refused to return to their cells for seven hours on Sunday because of extremely hot temperatures and water that was reportedly contaminated with heavy metals. 

Though the standoff was resolved, Department of Corrections officials did not say how. Those close to inmates in the facility say they returned to their cells and have not been heard from since. Families and advocates are demanding an investigation into the prison’s living conditions, as well as the water supply. 

 Advocates for the incarcerated report that prisoners had been on lockdown on and off for the past two months due to inadequate staffing and have not had access to ice, clean water or showers. 

“They said, ‘We are not going to walk into our cells if we don’t get access to basic human rights like access to water and showers,’” said Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee organizer David Boehnke of Sunday’s standoff. “These lockdowns are hurting everybody. They’re undermining this idea that the DOC is going to be more rehabilitative. Because you can’t be more rehabilitative if you can’t get out of your cell and you’re on lockdown all the time.”

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The action came as temperatures in the Twin Cities soared to near-record highs. The air temperature at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport reached 98°F around 3:55 p.m. on Sunday, tying a record set in 1925, according to the National Weather Service. On Monday, temperatures in Bayport reached 90°F as the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee held a press conference outside of the Stillwater prison. 

The current Stillwater prison, which is actually located in Bayport immediately to the south of the actual city, was built in 1914 to replace what was the first prison built in Minnesota. It is the second-most-populated prison in the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) system after the state prison in Faribault, with just over 1,200 prisoners. Only two state prisons have air conditioning throughout, and MCF-Stillwater is not one of them. 

Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee organizer David Boehnke speaking at Monday’s protest outside of Stillwater prison
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Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee organizer David Boehnke speaking at Monday’s protest outside of Stillwater prison
Photo by Chris Juhn

Those who were formerly incarcerated at Stillwater say extremely hot living conditions have resulted in peeling paint and sweating walls. They also contend that drinking the dirty water has contributed to health problems for inmates. 

“Some people get like rashes and s***,” said Tommy Powell of the water that comes out of the sinks. “It’s been [that way] for forever. You run the water, but now that water comes out brown.” Advocates add that sometimes it’s the only water inmates can drink when corrections officers decide to restrict access to the ice machine as punishment.  

As a result, advocates are demanding the Minnesota Department of Human Rights launch an investigation into the living conditions of prisoners at Stillwater, as well as for an independent body to test the water. The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that researches harmful chemicals found in everyday products like sunscreen and water, tested the water at MCF-Stillwater in early 2021 and found Radium-226 and Radium-228, both of which can cause cancer, cataracts and anemia. 

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Meanwhile, advocates say lockdowns at Stillwater prison have become the norm because of an ongoing shortage of corrections officers. The union representing corrections officers, AFSCME Council 5, released a statement on Sunday claiming that the Minnesota Department of Corrections has a history of understaffing its prisons, which results in reduced programming and, consequently, upset prisoners. In the same statement, the union demanded better pay for its workers to attract more people into a profession they call “honorable.” 

Boehnke contends the Department of Corrections has a quicker way to resolve this issue by granting work release to those who are eligible for it. Work release allows those who are a year away from supervised release to be allowed to work outside the prison in the general public and stay at a local jail overnight. 

“There are over 1,400 [inmates] who are ‘low risk’ according to the Department of Corrections, and qualify for the work release program,” said David Boehnke, organizer with the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. “So if we have a staffing crisis, you can address the staffing crisis by letting people [go] home for good.” 

With regard to work release, the DOC previously told the MSR that state statute requires them to consider the public interest and public safety. 

This story was updated on 9/6/2023 with the latest developments.

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