Two's a Crowd

THEY'LL BE BREAKING ground for a new prison in Rush City this spring, but between now and then the design of the medium-security facility could change dramatically. A bill repealing the ban on prisoner double-bunking sailed through the Minnesota House of Representatives last week, and is expected to clear the Senate with similar ease. Supporters tout the proposal as being fiscally and socially responsive, but critics claim that forcing inmates to room together in common cells is a recipe for disaster.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) approached the Legislature two years ago, requesting $100 million for the Rush City facility. The Legislature countered with an $89 million bonding bill, and the stipulation that the facility have at least 800 beds. To accommodate the $11 million dollar difference, the DOC had to loosen its stance on double-celling, a measure that had been prohibited at higher-level facilities due to the potential volatility of the population.

"The pursuit of [double-bunking] is short-sighted public policy,"says Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul). "We know these people are going to get out someday. Shouldn't we be concerned about what they are learning inside and how they are treated?" he asks. His concern also extends to prison staffers who, Paymar maintains, will be increasingly vulnerable to attack. "The current provision doesn't allow for additional staff. And even if you manage the time inmates spend in their cells, there is still going to be conflict," he explains.

Paymar also contends that forced rooming increases the number of sexual assaults, despite assurances to the contrary by DOC officials. "The amount of sexual predation/rape inside prison has always been covered up in order to pacify inmates. Every prisoner knows that filing a complaint is like signing a death certificate," he says.

Before his fellow pols rubber-stamped the proposal, Paymar asked that they first study the effects of double-bunking. But as this would have ultimately delayed construction, Paymar says the House Judiciary Committee vetoed his suggestion. "But it's really not about delays," he demurs. "The public wants the most punitive things possible to happen to prisoners, and this bill allows legislators to go back to their districts and talk about how tough they've been on crime, while spending a limited amount," he says.

Penny-pinching prison systems is not the best way to save taxpayer dollars, says Jenny Gainsborough, spokesperson for the ACLU's National Prison Project: "New York recently passed provisions allowing for the double-bunking of inmates in maximum security facilities, and it's dangerous for everyone. Inmates are preying on each other so they've had to add more guards." Since extra staff means extra money, Gainsborough maintains that double-bunking is a wash. "If the state really wants to save money, they'd be better served by keeping nonviolent offenders out of jail," she suggests.

But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown), disagrees with Gainsborough's contentions, and defends the Minnesota version of double-bunking as it continues to prohibit shared spaces in higher-security facilities such as Stillwater or Oak Park Heights. "Double-bunking helps us preserve educational programs," she says. "Money is scarce. You have to remember that we are serving more prisoners in less space than we were five years ago."

Which is precisely why Paymar thinks the proposal deserves closer scrutiny. "What happens when you put a guy in a cell with a sociopath or a psychopath for ten years, and then turn him loose? How much more will he cost [society] in terms of future rapes or murders?" he asks.

According to projections, the state's overall adult male prison population is expected to increase from 5,043 in 1997 to 6,282 in 2005. During this period, an additional 346 women will be jailed, and the number of juvenile offenders will continue to climb. As the current trend is to incarcerate people longer for a number of nonviolent offenses, especially drug-related ones, overcrowding only looks to get worse. Mixed with a growing public lust for punitive prison measures--narrowing education and rehabilitation programs, diminished privileges (this summer, the entire Minnesota prison system will go smoke-free)--the crowding is likely to prove all the more volatile.

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