Assaulting the System

September 28, 2018 09:15 AM

(ABC 6 News ) -- They are the men and women who oversee inmates and every day they face the unknown when they go into work.

In the past year -- we have been reporting an increase in the number of inmate assaults on staff members in Minnesota prisons and local jails.  The recent attacks on staff are spurring discussions about changes to prison safety.


"Every day I worry about making sure nobody gets hurt," said Captain Macey Tesmer with the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office.

She took an oath to protect and serve.  However, in recent years Tesmer says the badge she wears carries even more meaning.  "We become an object as opposed to a person, as soon as we put this uniform on," said Tesmer.  Tesmer has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years, now in charge of the Adult Detention Center

Not only does she protect her community, she now needs to protect herself and her colleagues.

According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, so far this year there have been 50 cases of assaults on staff, in some situations, with multiple staff victims. 

That's compared to 59 cases in all of 2017.

The most recent cases making headlines last week when corrections Officer Joseph Parise died in the line of duty after assisting another officer during an assault at Oak Park Heights prison facility.    This comes just a couple months after the deadly attack at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, where officer Joseph Gomm was killed by an inmate.

"We're dealing with things we didn't have to deal with 20 years ago and unfortunately as a result, that makes our jobs a little bit more dangerous," said Tesmer.

In Olmsted County, Tesmer says they have seen an increase in assaults on staff as well.  "It’s important to know that an assault can be skin on skin violence, or someone throwing bodily fluids or spitting on our staff," she said.  "We've had more in the last three years than I can count in 18 years prior to that."

According to the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office, the jail has seen five assaults on staff since the start of the year.   That's compared to eight in the last five years combined.

Tesmer says the escalating tension and lack of trust between law enforcement and the public is one contributing factor.

"I definitely feel like that does have some part of why we're seeing people less afraid to lash out at us," said Tesmer.  "Now, if we have detainees making threats, we are taking them more seriously."

The other contributing factor is mental health.

"We seriously need to find a way to deal with our folks that are in a mental health crisis, we end up with people in here as a result of their mental health illness that really need to be other places and get treatment and get some help," said Tesmer.   She added, "when those folks are here, they’re not getting treatment and the medications they need, then that causes them to have some behavioral issues as a result."

Minnesota Department to Human Services (DHS) Commissioner Emily Piper agrees.   "Nobody thinks that jail is the right place for people with a mental health crisis, the sheriff's don't think that, I don't think that," said Piper.

"One assault on a person or on a public servant is one too many," she added.

Piper said about 60 people on average, mostly from jails, are waiting to get a bed at a mental health facility and the commissioner expects that number grow.

"The solution isn't as simple as building more beds," she said.

There are currently 565 beds across the state according to DHS, mostly around the Twin Cities at the Anoka Hospital or the Hospital in St. Peter.  Anoka is a 110-bed facility.

Piper said to build another facility like it would cost the state around $40-60 million and another $60 million a year to operate.

"Building that probably would just eliminate our waiting list and not solve any of the long-term problems," said Piper.  "We can’t build our way out of this crisis."

But Rochester Republican Senator Dave Senjem says he disagrees. "Yes, we need beds, it's not all outpatient treatment if we haven't learned that from following the closure of our state hospitals, then we haven't learned anything."

That's why the senator authored a bill to help with mental health intervention.  The bill received bipartisan support and allocates $28 million for mental health crisis centers across the state and an additional $30 million for supportive housing.

"Just understand this is just the start of the journey," said Senjem.  "I just happened to be the one and probably in large part, because both mom and dad suffered through this and it wasn't fun and the idea that mom and dad would go to jail because they are mentally ill is just not even thinkable, I can't accept it," he said.

"They weren't criminals, they were sick people."

"It's not going to go away and it's not going to get any better without us finding some way to take care of these folks," said Tesmer.   Tesmer and her department are implementing changes locally as well.   The county now has mental health professionals on site three days a week, two social workers are embedded with detention center staff, one for chemical dependency, the other for jail diversion.

"We always knew that it could happen, but it just didn't happen as often as it is now," said Tesmer.

While she walks the halls at the Adult Detention Center worrying about keeping the inmates and her staff safe, Tesmer hopes, lawmakers will do the same.


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