By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
SHAKOPEE, Minn. — Cops and badges, guns and bullets, prisons and secure fences. In law enforcement, some things just go together.
Except at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, a prison without any security fence or outside wall to contain 650 female inmates, including many with violent backgrounds.
The only prison in the country without a fence for medium and high-security inmates has tried to get state funding for a $5.5 million fence, but that proposal has remained in legislative lockup in recent sessions at the Capitol.
“It’s a huge, huge issue for us to not have a secure perimeter around a fence, especially when we house the custody level offenders that we do,” said Tracy Beltz, warden of the prison.
Authorities never constructed a wall or fence around a facility that started out with about 85 inmates when it was built in 1986. A planned maximum security women’s prison failed to get off the ground and Shakopee became the default facility for all female Minnesota offenders, with 95 murderers and 28 serious sex offenders among the current population.
“It only takes one to really cause havoc and so I look at this as truly a function of the state to do our part to protect public safety near a facility where we know we’re putting high-risk inmates,” said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake.
Since 1995, seven inmates have broken out and 18 others have been caught planning an escape. The prison is located next to an elementary school and suburban residential neighborhood, worrying local officials and residents.
“They do as good of a job as they possibly could without having a fence around the facility,” said Shakopee mayor Brad Tabke, who lives within a mile of the prison. “However, it also has a lot of nasty criminals there that we don’t want to have an easy way of getting out if they wanted to get out.”
In early December, Angel Benjamin did get out. A 25-year-old con doing time for — believe it or not — attempting to escape from a county jail, Benjamin only got a couple of blocks before being apprehended in a resident’s bushes 23 minutes later.
As events unfolded the evening of Benjamin’s breakout, Tabke held an impromptu town hall discussion on his Facebook page that revealed the community’s safety concerns.
“A Code Red alert was being prepared when the criminal was taken into custody,” wrote Tabke on his blog and Facebook page. “The investigation is ongoing. Thankfully, no one was hurt or injured in this escape but it was entirely preventable.”
“Please build the fence quickly. This prisoner was arrested in my yard!” said Laura Welter-Hafermann in response to the mayor’s Facebook post. “I would like my neighborhood to remain safe for my young son!”
“Thank goodness nobody was hurt. This may not be the case next time,” wrote Susan Dahn.
“That hits, literally, too close to home! Time for a fence indeed!” added Michelle Wright Anderson.
It’s not just about who gets out but also what gets in without a secure barrier. Corrections officials say 32 intrusions have been documented on the grounds since 2007. At times, people innocently wander onto the prison property, while others run when law enforcement approaches them. Alcohol and drugs have been confiscated on the grounds along with other contraband.
“I’m as concerned about the safety of the prisoners and people rushing the place to settle a score with a rival drug dealer by harming their woman at Shakopee prison and you can just walk up and do that right now,” said Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee. “And then there’s the contraband thing — people drive by and throwing stuff in the bushes that the women are picking up that’s part of the mix too that we’re concerned about.”
A fence would also allow guards to be deployed more efficiently and effectively.
“Really, our officers function as the perimeter, anytime there is movement they’ve got to all be outside. They’re in identified positions so they can see all across the yard if somebody does take off,” Beltz said. “What we could do is better utilize our staff doing cell searches, room searches, looking for contraband, those kind of things.”
The Minnesota Department of Corrections and Gov. Mark Dayton both support funding for a fence, but the project has remained a prisoner of the legislative bonding process for several years. Officials say an aesthetically pleasing fence that blends into the residential area could appease neighborhood opponents, but at a cost of $500 per square foot more than regular prison fences — or about $2 million.
“It can’t be chain link and razor wire,” Tabke said. “It must do everything it can to not reduce property values and needs to look good and fit with that type of setting because it is completely unfair to those homeowners if something is built on the cheap and doesn’t look as if it belongs in that area.”
Contact Tom Steward at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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