Edward Mohammed Johnson, an inmate doing time for homicide at the Stillwater prison, has been charged with beating officer Joseph Gomm to death with a hammer.
The July 18 killing stunned correction officers. Attacks on guards—let alone fatal ones—are relatively rare. Statewide, there are usually only one or two assaults a year. Commissioner Tom Roy believes Gomm may be the first Minnesota guard to be killed in the line of duty.
“We are not accustomed to losing staff,” he said at a news conference shortly after the incident. “This is a bad day.”
There would be plenty of hard days to follow. As a precaution in the wake of the attack, prisons across Minnesota went on lockdown. Inmates were confined to their cells at all times, unless they were being escorted to the gym so guards could search them and their cells for weapons or contraband.
The lockdowns were gradually lifted once staff felt it was safe to resume their normal schedules. By August, Stillwater’s was the only one that remained.
Prisoners and their families call the conditions “inhumane” and demand the lockdown be brought to an end. Audio obtained by the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee—a group aiming to end the “criminalization, exploitation, and enslavement of working class people”—paints a grim picture.
The account comes from an inmate identified only as “Tony,” whose last name wasn’t provided “due to concerns for retaliation.”
He describes prisoners stranded in their cells without basic supplies or services. Doctors stop by and distribute medication, he says, but claims inmates don't have access to psychologists or clergy. The food delivered to their cells is in smaller portions than they normally receive.
The worst part is the hygiene. Tony claims they’ve had “maybe” two showers in 24 days. They’ve been sitting in the same dirty underwear for three weeks, without access to laundry or the canteen. There are new prisoners who haven't been given clothing or supplies.
"They have no property or anything, and they’ve been asking staff about this stuff, and they’ve basically just been blowing them off,” he says.
It wasn’t until this week, he says, that they began seeing significant time outside their cells. He thinks this was only due to a KSTP report outlining conditions.
Tony’s main frustration is that it all seems so haphazard—that the staff had no real plan to feed them or provide basic services during the lockdown. “So we’re all suffering because we have incompetent leadership.”
Another account by an inmate in the KSTP report parrots some of Tony’s claims—that inmates hadn’t showered since the lockdown began, and that they’d been fed nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
But a statement from Department of Corrections spokesperson Sarah Fitzgerald contradicts most of what he says. She says prisoners have received showers, hygiene bags, and clean linens, and they’re now allowed to shower every other day.
Medications and medical appointments “are provided,” and meals are approved by a dietitian and “meet the nutritional needs as set by the FDA guidelines.” Friends, family, and legal counsel are now allowed to resume visits, and the canteen has reopened.
Tony claims that any improvements have been the result of media coverage, but Fitzgerald’s statement describes it as the standard transition from lockdown to normal operations—slow and methodical.
“Lockdown is not the preferred state of the facility, but resuming normal programming must be done with intention, prioritizing the safety of staff and offenders.”
The lockdown created something of a black box, so it’s difficult to know what conditions were really like. But the vacuum created by that opacity leaves plenty of room for speculation. Unless the situation becomes clearer, opinions on the Stillwater lockdown will diverge based on whom people tend to trust anyway: police or prisoners.