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Minnesota Prison on Lockdown After Protest Over Dirty Water, Lack of Phone Use and Out-of-Cell Time

Over Labor Day weekend 2023, approximately 100 prisoners refused to return to their cells at Minnesota Correctional Facility (MCF) in Stillwater. They were protesting limited access to showers, phones and recreation, which the state Department of Corrections (DOC) blamed on a staff shortage.

The protest lasted seven hours on September 3, 2023, but the prison remained on lockdown the following day. All but two of the protesters returned to their cells. Those two were placed in solitary confinement, including Phillip Vance, 42, who has served 20 years for a 2002 murder he steadfastly insists he didn’t commit.

Vance said the “protest” involved sitting and playing cards in the dayroom rather than returning to small and stifling cells at the un-air-conditioned prison. Before he went to “the hole,” he said: “We’ve been locked in our cells the last couple of days with record temperatures, no access to ice, water, showers, to our families.”

Complaints about dirty water, which comes from a well onsite, met with pushback from DOC. Spokesman Andy Skoogman called it “patently false,” insisting the water “has been deemed safe by testing” and there has been “no outbreak or abnormal number of water borne illnesses, such as diarrhea or E Coli.”

But after the protest ended, DOC ordered 51,000 bottles of drinking water, enough for seven bottles per prisoner for five days. Commissioner Paul Schnell also ordered the prison’s water tested. However, DOC said there were no reports of illness related to the water supply.

Former lifer Vava Kuaddafi, who was released from MCF-Stillwater in 2014, claimed DOC was not forthcoming about the water quality, pointing to a chronic rash on his back that he blamed on decades of showering in dirty prison water. Other prisoners reported that faucet water has a brown or reddish tint and a metallic taste. Some used socks as filters.

The incident highlighted ongoing staffing challenges, which have contributed to restrictions on prisoners’ movements and access to programming and recreational activities. At the time of the protest 50 staff positions were vacant, DOC said.  


Sources: KARE, MPR News, Minneapolis Post, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Twin Cities Pioneer Press, WCCO