Above photo: Dan Feidt; Photo source MN DOC.
Oak Park Heights, MN — Just days after prisoners at the Stillwater prison staged civil disobedience actions by refusing a staff lockdown, incarcerated workers at the nearby ‘level 5’ MCF-Oak Park Heights prison canteen have staged a work strike, according to activists who regularly stay in touch with prisoners.
The use of segregation, or sending prisoners to ‘the hole,’ has increased in recent years. Oak Park Heights administrators sent prisoners there 694 times in 2018, according to state Department of Corrections (DOC) data.
The Twin Cities branch of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) sent out a press release on the Oak Park Heights work stoppage:
While the lockdown in B-East in Stillwater Prison continues after a sit-in there, another prisoner protest has not gotten news: the canteen work strike at Oak Park Heights Prison.
Canteen is how prisoners get basic necessities like stamps, envelopes, deodorant, shampoo, and food. Yet for nearly a year now prisoners have only been able to make $40 a week in purchases, down from $140 due to short staffing. Families have long decried this practice and IWOC asked for a timeline for this to be changed last October but is still unresolved.
“Our people in prison need to be able to buy basic necessities, especially if they have diabetes or other health issues,” says Elizabeth Scott, whose husband is incarcerated in Minnesota. “Right now people have to choose between hygiene, mailing supplies, or food — this makes protest inevitable.”
Canteen has long been assembled by prisoners in Oak Park Heights with complaints about being forced to work canteen after being sent to that supermax prison, and being paid only $1 an hour in the DOC’s most profitable business.
“They make so much money off of canteen. I feel like this is the root of a lot of problems in the DOC, and not letting people come home early on work release and other programs,” says Tracy Karlovich whose fiancee is being forced to work canteen in Stillwater. “And there is no air conditioning in the warehouse and they get $0.50 and they take half of that, 1 dollar during a strike!” she said.
Now prisoners in Oak Park Heights are on strike, with hand reports to the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) suggesting they want higher wages and time out of their cells after work and on weekends, a once guaranteed part of prison cut back by COVID and now short staffing at a number of facilities including Stillwater and Rush City.
“Not having canteen is causing serious unrest across the DOC, why not pay prisoners a few dollars more in wages and privileges to make sure it happens?” asked David Boehnke, an IWOC organizer. “If we have staffing shortages after a 200 million budget increase surely there is extra money to go around?”
Prisoners in Stillwater’s minimum unit report being forced to work canteen instead of doing work in the community. ‘Brian’, a prisoner in Stillwater minimum who asked to remain anonymous said: “we are being made to bag groceries at $1 an hour instead of getting the skills we need to transition back into society, what sense does this make?”
“If they can start canteen workers at $1 an hour, everyone in prison should be paid at least that, not $0.25 we start at now.”
Prison labor is based on a dark corner of the U.S. Constitution. The 13th Amendment “which protects against slavery and involuntary servitude, explicitly excludes from its reach those held in confinement due to a criminal conviction” according to the ACLU, which leads to poor working conditions and pay, “dangerous work conditions and preventable injuries.” The ACLU and other rights watchdog organizations endorsed new prison labor reform bills in February (bill PDF).
Bonus Background: Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was incarcerated for a time at Oak Park Heights; U.S. Marshals moved him to a federal prison, FCI Tucson, in Arizona in August 2022, after he accepted a federal plea deal for murdering George Floyd, which sparked a major uprising in 2020.
DOC: Water Quality To Be Tested In Stillwater
In another new development, the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced over the weekend that water quality at 84 sites in the Minnesota Correctional Facility Stillwater prison would be tested for “contaminants, including bacteria, metals and total suspended solids.” The Environmental Working Group reported contaminants in the prison water like trihalomethanes, radium and chloroform far above their health guidelines. Lovell Oates, executive director of Justice Impacted Individuals Voting Effectively, said earlier that in Stillwater, “the water is brown and comes from a well.” An email sent to Unicorn Riot on the morning of Sept. 12 by a person housed in Stillwater B East asserted that prisoners have faced retaliation for the earlier civil disobedience actions.