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Brown brick building of Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater
Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater (Photo source: Google Maps)

Prisoner assaults on officers hurt both parties. But only those who live in prison are required to enroll in the “cognitive thinking” classes that have been shown to improve relationships, reduce conflicts and perhaps lower the number of assaults on officers.

What if prisoners and officers participated together in these classes? 

Cognitive thinking courses offered at my prison, including “Thinking for a Change” and “Restorative Justice,” support students’ learning and reflection about communication, coping and self-awareness. Working on these skills together might improve the prisoner-officer dynamic and support prison safety.

A recent graduate of a character-development class at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater offered this perspective: If the officers could “come in and put their badge down, sit down and talk about life as men — not as prisoners and officers, not as criminals and cops — but as men, we would walk out of this room with a different perspective of each other.”

Who bears the blame?

In 2020, the Minnesota legislative auditor issued guidelines and set specific goals to assure safety for both prisoners and staff. However, since the release of the report, “Safety in State Correctional Facilities,” in 2020, the Minnesota Department of Corrections has reported to the local news that assaults on prison staff have increased.

Prisoners question the reason assaults are said to be increasing. Emmanuel Myles, a college student and prisoner who previously was charged with a staff assault, said that he had “never seen anyone assault a CO for no reason. They’re being provoked.” 

Myles believes staff assaults are occurring because “officers are getting more bold. They’re not being held accountable for how they talk to us by their coworkers or bosses.” Myles pointed to his own case as an example. He and another prisoner assaulted two officers who they claim had been confiscating family photos that the two had received approval to possess, Myles said.

News reporters rely on the MNDOC to report facts about assaults, but the MNDOC represents only one side. Reporting from 5 Eyewitness News (KSTP-TV) in Minneapolis suggested that recent staff assaults in Stillwater were unprovoked. But if an officer has a reputation of antagonizing prisoners by conducting excessive cell searches and pat-downs, while also targeting prisoners with informal write-ups that result in loss of privileges, does the MNDOC not consider that to be a provocation? (I have known officers with this reputation.)

Discipline policies fall short

Policies related to punishment for assaults aggravate the problem for incarcerated people. 

Often, an offender who assaults an officer is placed in solitary confinement for a span of 60 to 360 days, according to my prison’s discipline rules. Once there, treatment packets that focus on how to change thinking patterns to avoid another incident are provided to the prisoner. He must complete the assigned packets in order to be released from solitary, even if he’s served his full segregation sentence. That means you can be given 300 days for a staff assault and still be denied release if the packets aren’t completed.

These policies do not improve staff safety either. According to the auditor’s report, “the DOC does not collect sufficient data on its disciplinary actions to determine whether they help prevent future violence.” 

Not only is no data collected, but officers who have been assaulted are more than likely required to come back to work, sometimes the very next day, depending on the severity of the assault. They’re often placed back into the same hostile environment and forced to work under the same conditions that potentially contributed to the assault in the first place.

Although the state of Minnesota recognizes that staff assaults play a major role in creating an unsafe environment in prisons, the state does not recommend any approaches to build more positive relationships between prisoners and corrections staff. The focus is primarily on prisoners’ behavior, and not on building mutual respect and better communication. 

For Malcolm Cooper, another incarcerated person, that leaves the state believing that prisoners are initiating the violence and are automatically in the wrong. 

If the officers shared “accountability, the narrative would change, probably in our favor,” Cooper said.

Classes are shown to help

Julian Anderson, another incarcerated student with a staff assault on his record, said, “They have an ‘us-against-them’ mentality — so do we.” 

Anderson decided to re-create his image and relationships with officers by participating in voluntary cognitive thinking classes. Since completing such classes as “Anger Management” and “Thinking for a Change,” Anderson hasn’t been involved in any altercations with prisoners or officers. When asked if he would be willing to participate in cognitive thinking classes with officer involvement, Anderson said, “Absolutely, 100%. I would love to see what that looks like.”

The benefits of mutual participation in cognitive thinking classes have been realized in the past. 

Booker T. Hodges is the prisoner facilitator of the class “Stand Up,” which included officer participation in 2018. The class is designed to show students how they can realize success after failure, and to show that incarcerated people aren’t the only ones to fail. 

Officer participation “was absolutely paramount to the mission of ‘Stand Up’ to show alternative views on consequences of certain behaviors,” Booker said. 

What do officers think?

Prisoners likely aren’t the only ones who would like to see relationships with officers improve. 

In the findings of the auditor’s report, Minnesota determined that increased “programming opportunities reduce the risk of violence in prisons” and that many prison staff members “do not believe prison leaders appropriately balance security needs and prisoner programming.” 

I tried to interview officers about their views, including some who had been assaulted and others who are generally well liked. Some officers agreed to talk, but prison administrators denied my request. 

I also requested an interview with the prison’s psychology department to discuss the effects of returning to work in a hostile environment after a traumatizing incident, but that request was also turned down.

The bottom line

Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell has blamed staff shortages for the lack of positive programming in Stillwater. He ascribed the shortage of corrections officers to safety concerns related to ongoing staff assaults. In this telling, prisoners can’t participate in programming that promotes positive behavior and rehabilitation because officers don’t want to work in an unsafe environment.

A different perspective might be that we’ve been missing these classes because of lockdowns, not lack of staff. Stillwater currently offers five classes on cognitive thinking and building character. There’s also a college program that offers prisoners the chance to earn degrees through Pell Grants. When classes are unavailable because of lockdowns related to staff assaults, the actions of a few affect the whole community. 

In the guidelines, the auditor recommends continuing positive programming and cognitive thinking classes in Stillwater. Many prisoners, including me, believe that these classes will have a big impact on how successful we’ll be upon release. 

With more officer participation, they might have an even larger impact on the safety of the prison, a top priority for the state of Minnesota.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Donovan Diego is a tutor in the education department at Stillwater Correctional Facility in Minnesota. He is earning a bachelor's degree in education with a focus in special education at Metro State University.