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American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5 Associate Director Tim Henderson talks about the conditions in the Minnesota State Corrections System at a press conference in South St. Paul on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. Behind Henderson are Parise's co-workers, corrections officers Derek Magle, left, and Jeff Vars, right. John Autey / Pioneer Press

After prison guard's death, Minnesota prison unions call for more staff, longer segregation terms for inmates

ST. PAUL—Unions representing workers in Minnesota state prisons on Tuesday, Sept. 25, called for increased staffing and harsher penalties for inmates who assault staff members.

The call followed an assault on a corrections officer at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights around noon on Monday. Corrections officer Joe Parise, 37, a four-year veteran of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, died of a medical emergency after responding to the attack.

"You don't go to work to die," said Tim Henderson, associate director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5. "I can confidently say that there is a correctional officer shortage in every one of our facilities. We are not at 100 percent."

Union leaders also asked for immediate implementation of the DOC's proposed increased penalty for assaults on staff to 270 to 360 days in segregation; some offenders who have assaulted staff have served only 90 days, according to the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, which represents caseworkers, therapists and others in Minnesota's correctional facilities.

After learning of the inmate attack on Monday, Parise ran across the entire prison complex to help, Henderson said during a news conference at union headquarters in South St. Paul.

The corrections officer under attack was punched about 15 times in the face before Parise and others were able to restrain the inmate and move him to segregation, Henderson said.

After the incident, Parise said he wasn't feeling well, returned to his unit and collapsed within 10 minutes, Henderson said.

"One would have to think there was a connection," he said.

Parise, who was married and had a 2-year-old daughter, was pronounced dead at Regions Hospital in St. Paul; two other corrections workers were treated at Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater and released.

The incident remains under investigation.

"Joe died at work, on duty, helping a fellow officer and keeping everyone safe, like heroes do," Henderson said. "That was just like him. He was always there to help a fellow correctional worker. He was one of ours."

Parise: Put a smile on your face

Parise was a Navy veteran and served on the Oak Park Heights prison's honor guard, "making sure the flag was presented with respect," Henderson said.

AFSCME Local 915 vice president Derek Magle said Parise was "the guy ... who would put a smile on your face" when you were having a bad day. "We were all better to have known Joe and to have Joe be part of our brotherhood," he said. "Joe's sorely going to be missed."

At a gathering of corrections officers on Saturday night, Parise, whose wife is pregnant with the couple's first son, talked about wanting to transfer to the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater after the baby's birth "to help them out ... because he thought that would be the thing to do, that they needed help," said Jeff Vars, president of the AFSCME Local 915. "That's just the type of person Joe is."

Vars said the mood at the prison on Tuesday was "pretty somber."

"It's a tough go," he said. "When incidents happen, we support each other. We're a close group. We hang out outside work, and we're our best outlet for support and for backing each other and that's how we get back."

The prison remains on lockdown.

Henderson said the union will be working to get a "robust" staffing bill approved by the Minnesota Legislature during the 2019 session.

"We don't expect any legislative game-playing or any politics to be involved with that," he said. "It's quite obvious we have concerns and safety and security issues going on. The department had recruitment and retention problems. That needs to be addressed. We are dealing with that. Nobody is sitting on their hands; everyone is working to make these facilities safe and secure."

He said he hopes more Minnesotans apply to be corrections officers.

"These are good jobs," he said. "There's a lot of pride in the work that these corrections officers and staff do. ... We need brave men and women to step up and take on these responsibilities."

Last attack

Monday's attack came just two months after a Stillwater prison inmate allegedly used a prison-issued hammer and two improvised knives to kill a corrections officer. On July 18, inmate Edward Muhammad Johnson allegedly bludgeoned officer Joseph Gomm.

"There have been numerous attacks on corrections officers at state prisons this year, and employee safety and security must be the number one priority of the Department of Corrections," MAPE president Chet Jorgenson said in a prepared statement.

A DOC spokeswoman said the agency shares the safety concerns raised by corrections officers and other employees, "who have lost two of their colleagues this year."

The department requested funding for 187 additional corrections officer positions to increase staffing and improve safety, but the Legislature approved only 15 of those positions, DOC spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald said.

"The department is committed to doing everything possible to improve safety for everyone in our prisons," she said.

Henderson said union members and officers must be part of the decision-making process in developing new staffing policies and procedures.

"We need to work harder," he said. "We need to be diligent. Unfortunately, it takes some of these tragic events to happen to get these things moving. We've been asking and addressing the issues of morale for many years, and we're going to continue to do that. We're going to get this right. We're not going to stop until we do."

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