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Agency cited in Stillwater prison officer's death

Joseph Gomm

ST. PAUL -- The state Occupational Safety and Health Administration has alleged a serious safety violation and levied a $25,000 fine against the Minnesota Department of Corrections in connection with the death of a Stillwater prison guard last summer.

Corrections officer Joseph Gomm was killed on July 18 by an inmate wielding a prison-issued hammer and two improvised knives in a workshop at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater, which is located in Bayport, officials said.

OSHA inspectors cited the state DOC because it “did not have an adequate workplace violence program for employees exposed to workplace violence.”

The citation, which was issued last month, said the DOC “did not furnish to each employee, conditions of employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards which caused or were likely to cause death or serious injury to employees.”

DOC officials on Feb. 4 contested the citation.

In its notice, DOC officials said the agency took steps to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards which caused or were likely to cause death or serious injury to employees” and has implemented and enforced policies “to encourage the safe operation of its vocational programing.”

“The unique correctional setting must be considered in evaluating this matter,” DOC officials wrote. “The DOC has actively worked to reduce the risk posed to corrections officers while complying with the agency’s obligations under state and federal law to rehabilitate offenders, including through vocational training programs, and not subject them to inhumane conditions of confinement.”

The DOC also said OSHA failed to describe the nature of the violation in the detail required under state law and that the reason provided by the citation does not violate the statute cited.

Prison agency's review ongoing

DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said Thursday that the agency is doing a “comprehensive review of everything related” to Gomm’s death.

“This is a tragic situation, and certainly we’re concerned,” Schnell said in a phone interview. “We need to learn from every incident that occurs in the facilities and then take whatever corrective action we can reasonably take. (But) there are just some risks that you cannot fully abate or address.”

A spokesman for OSHA said Thursday morning that officials from the DOC and OSHA will next arrange an informal conference to negotiate an agreement.

Prison inmate Edward Muhammad Johnson has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with Gomm’s death.

According to the criminal complaint filed in Washington County District Court, Johnson, 42, checked out a hammer from the prison’s industry building and used it to beat and kill Gomm, causing “substantial injuries to his head and face.”

Johnson also used a “homemade knife” to twice stab Gomm in the chest, the complaint states.

Gomm was a 16-year veteran of the Department of Corrections. Thousands of corrections officers from around the U.S. and Canada came to Minnesota to attend his July 26 funeral at North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills.

Gomm’s family said Thursday that they were not surprised by the OSHA findings.

“We appreciate the integrity, hard work and final, objective conclusions of the OSHA officials,” said Mike Padden, the attorney hired by the family to represent them in a possible wrongful-death lawsuit against the state. “It’s what my clients hoped for and is a step in the right direction.”

Bill seeks to pay Gomm family $3M

State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, is authoring a bill that would have the state compensate Gomm’s family. The amount proposed is $3 million, he said, which could change as the bill goes through committee hearings. The money would come from the state’s general fund.

“(This) might be a better way to go than having to drag the survivors and family through ugly litigation,” he said. “In the case of the first corrections officer that’s ever been killed by a prisoner in Minnesota, I was pretty sure that there would be an appropriation for that.”

A settlement with the state should preclude further lawsuits, Lesch said. He added that the OSHA’s findings will likely factor into the proposal.

“If we can’t show that we were doing what was necessary to keep guards safe … that factors into the total amount of the award that we ultimately would agree on as a Legislature,” Lesch said.

OSHA also investigated conditions at the Minnesota Correctional Facility — Oak Park Heights on Sept. 25, 2018, a day after a corrections officer suffered a medical emergency and died after responding to an inmate assault on another officer.

Joseph Parise, 37, of Forest Lake, died at Regions Hospital in St. Paul as the result of acute coronary syndrome, with a secondary cause of ischemic heart disease, according to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s office. He had run across the prison complex to help restrain the inmate, who reportedly punched an officer in the face 15 times.

That inspection resulted in no citations, said OSHA spokesman James Honerman.

Ryan Faircloth contributed to this report.