Shakopee women’s prison Warden Tracy Beltz will tell you a fence is long overdue. The prison she oversees houses about 560 women in the midst of a residential neighborhood.
While one of her obvious concerns is keeping offenders inside, Beltz has an equal but odd motivation for the fence—keeping people out.
“People come on our grounds,” Beltz said. “Staff doesn’t know what their intent is. We’re putting staff in a much riskier situation than there needs to be.”
A short hedge is the only obstacle for people coming or going from the prison, and Beltz rattles off stories of people who’ve ventured onto the 35-acre campus. Some think they’ve stumbled upon a college campus, Beltz said. Others are looking to make contact with offenders.
"We have more males than females intruding," said Calvin Miller, associate warden of administration. "We had some recently pull up in a car calling an inmate's name. We don't know if that was for an escape."
One man recently walked onto the prison grounds waving a cane designed for the blind. When staff approached, he dropped the cane and took off running. One inmate thought she saw her ex-boyfriend’s car driving and feared he was coming to kill her. Staff have found drugs and alcohol stashed on the grounds, presumably left for offenders, and they say their big fear is their ability to stash weapons.
“Many of these women have been in volatile relationships with people who are on the spooky side and may not be overly stable,” Beltz said. “I can’t harp on this enough —not having a fence is a safety issue for our staff, offenders and the public.”
Much of the immediate public in this case is right across the street in residential homes and at Edward and Grace Sweeney Elementary School. The prison's address is 1010 W. 6th Ave.
“I don’t know where it came from that we won’t have dangerous offenders,” Beltz said, referring to a neighbor, quoted in a Shakopee Valley News report, saying he was told dangerous offenders wouldn't be incarcerated there. “I don’t want to scare anybody, but the reality is, this is a prison,” Beltz said.
The Shakopee facility houses every woman sentenced to state prison in Minnesota. Of the 570 offenders there on Jan. 5, six were categorized as those convicted of multiple crimes and the most dangerous ones, including first-degree murder, according to Miller. About 460 were convicted of crimes such as felony assault and burglary. A high number of offenders have a mental health diagnosis, Beltz said.
“You save prison beds for people you most need off the streets,” Beltz said. “The amount of things that could go bad is unreal, and I don’t want a bad day to happen.”
Offenders Out and About
It's reasonable the unknowing would mistake the prison for a college campus. Offenders, with only bright orange hats to signify their status, are outside at least three times a day as they move between the facility’s 11 buildings for housing, programs and meals. Movements, as they are called, are scheduled and supervised by five or six guards who track up to several hundred women at a time. Offenders can also walk around the inner part of the grounds and play softball on a field directly across from the elementary school.
Their freedom of movement doesn't bother John Wahl too much. Wahl, who bought a house on the 800 block of Sixth Street in July 2011, said he did his research and knew the prison housed offenders at every level.
“We’re not scared,” he said. “Unless there’s a rash of escapes.”
Prison Fence History
The fencing issue isn't new. The Shakopee prison, which has existed in some form since 1919, has been the subject of numerous media reports, including a feature six years ago on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, after some neighbors and then-Mayor John Schmitt opposed a fence.
When the latest facilities were built, in 1986, the plan included a partial fence, according to Miller, but for reasons unknown to him and Beltz, the fence was never constructed. And although there haven’t been any successful escapes in recent years, seven inmates have escaped since 1995. Beltz attributes the low escape rate to luck.
“We are more concerned about prevention than with saying, well, nothing’s happened,” she said. “What will people say when something does happen?”
Two women are currently housed in a segregation unit for planning escapes, Beltz said. Six offenders were recently transferred out of state after their escape plans were discovered. If there were a fence, offenders wouldn’t have to be sent away, incurring added costs for the state to house them elsewhere, Beltz said.
And although previous attempts to pay for a fence through the Minnesota legislative have failed, Beltz and Miller say now could be the perfect time for success. The fence is now a priority of the state’s Department of Corrections, and the latest fencing plan has been designed with the neighborhood in mind, Beltz said.
“Last time, I think there was a misunderstanding about what we wanted to construct,” she said. “We never wanted barbed wire. This (fence) is a good compromise that enhances the look of the neighborhood.”
Shakopee Mayor Brad Tabke said the $5.4 million fence, with wrought iron and decorative columns, looks pleasing. Unlike his predecesor, he's not opposed to the idea.
“I want to hear from the community before putting my opinion out there,” he said.
To that end, Tabke and several city councilors say they will attend meetings on the topic with prison administrators on Thursday, Jan. 12. Beltz said they've invited about 60 neighborhood residents to meetings at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., both at the prison, to lay out the facts and, they hope, build a rapport with neighbors.
To attend one of the prison fence meetings, contact Karen.Gjerstad@state.mn.us or call (952) 496-4408.
“I hope someday when we have a fence, people look back and say, 'I don’t know why it was such a big deal,’” she said.
Wahl, the recent newcomer to the neighorhood, plans to attend one of the meetings.
“For us, it matters where they’re going to put it,” he said. “Right now I like that (the campus) doesn’t look like a prison.”