Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

Behind Razor Wire

Jennifer Bristol, Local 915, is a medical lab technician at Oak Park Heights.

When you think of a prison, don’t just think of correctional officers.

Don’t forget about people like Denise Pierre, an accounting technician at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility, who oversees the phone privileges for thousands of inmates across the state.

Behind-the-scenes jobs like hers are crucial in keeping a prison running well. AFSCME represents nearly 2,800 correctional officers and their co-workers in Minnesota’s prison system, which incarcerates more than 9,200 offenders.

Being able to make phone calls is one of inmates’ most valuable privileges. It’s up to Pierre to set up their accounts (which function like a debit card), to give inmates their PIN numbers (and replacements when originals are stolen), and to work out any problems with their accounts. “The phone is like money to them,” Pierre says, “so it’s pretty important that their phones are working properly and their access is available.”

Consistent treatment is key

John Wing, a correctional officer for 20 years, is the due process officer at Lino Lakes. When inmates violate prison rules, he decides what punishment they get. Just as officers in the cell blocks strive to avoid favoritism in how they treat offenders, Wing has to be sure he punishes similar offenses the same way.

If he doesn’t, it erodes security for inmates and officers. “Inmates base their lives on consistency,” Wing says. “If inmates know what they’re going to get for an offense, then it doesn’t become an issue.”

Making the transition

The prison system isn’t just about crime and punishment, however. Especially at lower-security facilities such as Lino Lakes, pre-release programming for offenders is vital. Steve Kotval, for example, oversees a small carpentry crew that does routine repairs and maintenance at Lino Lakes. His crews develop the skills they need to take part in work opportunities on community projects that connect them, they hope, with a construction career.

Doug Stearly, a correctional officer for more than 30 years, oversees a key part of prison programming – the 1,300 volunteers who come in to show inmates a better way.

“In these kinds of times, when money’s a little tight, these volunteer services are a huge asset,” he says. Stearly provides background checks, orientations and escorts for faith volunteers, substance abuse groups, and others who work with offenders. “There is the opportunity for change at this level,” he says, “to kind of transition them from prison life into the community.”

Compassion goes only so far

Prisons also provide medical care – and Oak Park Heights has the most complete medical clinic in the system. It offers routine medical exams, plus dental care, physical therapy, and dialysis. Trend Fields, an administrative specialist, works with about 20 therapists who provide mental health treatment for about half the prison’s population.

“The idea is to keep offenders healthy here, without having to send them out to specialists and spend more taxpayer money,” says Kari Anderson, a licensed practical nurse at Oak Park Heights. There are obstacles that make prison health care different from working with the general public, Anderson says. Examples include restrictions on medications and lining up certain kinds of exams.

Jennifer Bristol came to Oak Park Heights after 13 years at private clinics in the Twin Cities. Being aware of security is a difficult transition, she says, in more ways than one. “When you’re in the medical field, you’re very caring and compassionate. In this environment, you can still do that, but you just always have to be on your guard. They need medical care like anyone else. It’s just a different environment. You do your job and you leave. It’s not the time for small talk, per se.”

Bristol is a medical lab technician. She primarily takes x-rays and draws inmates’ blood. “I work with needles all the time, so I always have an officer with me. I couldn’t do my job without them.”

A majority of inmates are not healthy when they come to prison, Anderson says, so education is a big part of her practice. “Corrections is a different way of nursing, but it’s still the idea that you’re here to provide the best care you can.” 

Adapted from the May/June 2009 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine.

Related article:

Correctional officers never know what the next day will bring

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