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Stillwater prisoners protest lack of resources for inmates

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Elizer Darris, a former Stillwater prison inmate, speaks in front of two others who all say the water in the facility comes out brown. (Elijah Todd-Walden/Center for Broadcast Journalism)

Inmates at the Stillwater Correctional Facility say they don’t have access to clean water, showers, air conditioning, or clean clothing. As of Tuesday evening, the B East block was still in lockdown. Family members and community organizers rallied at the governor’s temporary residence at the Eastcliff Mansion to demand better conditions.

Two inmates, Lincoln Caldwell and Dominic Newton, are allegedly locked in isolation for “inciting a riot,” according to Marvina Haynes and Caldwell’s mother, Cathay Caldwell. That’s despite Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell saying that the protests over the weekend were peaceful. Cathy Caldwell says that her son wasn’t even involved in organizing the protest.

David Boehnke, a spokesman for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee was able to call a resident of another block, Amani Fardan, who said that inmates' water was the color of coffee and the temperature was unbearable. Boehnke and Cathy Caldwell said their phone numbers were then blocked by the DOC on Tuesday.

“If you can't keep people in humane conditions and can't staff the prisons, you need to bring people home early,” Boehnke said. “If we're going to solve the staffing crisis, we have to reduce the prison population. That’s the solution.”

Former inmates say that when they served time in Stillwater prison, they went without clean water or air conditioning as well, and were forced to use socks to filter some of the grime out of the water from sinks in their cells. Former inmate Elizer Darris said that the conditions in the cells were so hot that the walls were sweating.

“Every change of season, the stuff comes out brown. They give us a water report and what does the water report say? ‘The water is good,’ every single year, and I’m reading the report wringing out my brown sock,” Darius said. “The report is telling me the water is good, my eyes are telling me the water is brown!”

Marvina Haynes, founder of MN Wrongfully Convicted Judicial Reform, said that many of the prisoners could be released today if the DOC wanted, as more than 1300 people qualify for early release through legislation passed this last year. Commissioner Schnell said during a community Question and Answer session that the reason they have not reviewed all the cases was due to staffing shortages. Haynes said that was disingenuous, as the DOC has a $600 million dollar budget, with the Stillwater facility having a budget for 2023 of nearly $42 million. She said the DOC is not making a significant effort to fill positions, and people who could be out for early release are suffering.

“What about the people who are suffering, that money could have been used to make people who are in prison, not treated like animals, but like human beings? That's why there should be a difference between a prison cell and a zoo cage.” Black Lives Matter Minnesota Organizer Monique Cullars-Doty said. “We can and should do better in this country.”

Protesters at the governor’s residence asserted that Schnell is either lying or not accurately representing the truth as the DOC released a study saying that the water in the facility was safe for consumption. They say that the study does not account for contaminants in the pipes, because it was conducted at the source of the water. The Stillwater Prison was built in 1912, and families of the people inside the prison say that the pipes in the prison likely contain lead, as does the paint. St. Paul School Board member Chauntyll Allen said Minnesota schools have had to replace lead pipes, and Minnesota prisons likely have to as well.

Marvina Haynes and David Boehnke listen to Amani Fardan on the phone, an inmate in the Stillwater Prison (Elijah Todd-Walden/Center for Broadcast Journalism)

“Some years ago, we started testing the pipes in some of these old buildings and found that there was lead in the pipes. One thing we noticed, though, is that you could be in the building and there might be lead in that water fountain, But there might not be lead in another water fountain.” Allen said. “So it was necessary for us to go to every single spot where water came out in order for us to know if it was contaminated. Testing from outside the building was not going to do anything.”

The protesters demanded that the DOC continue its water testing, bring clean, bottled water into the prison, lift the lockdown on B East, let Lincoln Caldwell and Dominic Newton out of isolation, and allow prisoners out of their cells to reduce the effect the heat has on them. They promised to bombard the DOC with phone calls and continue to protest outside the governor’s residence and the Stillwater Facility until those demands are met.

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