Asked what qualifies his choice for corrections commissioner to lead the state’s prison system, incoming DFL Gov. Tim Walz pointed to Paul Schnell’s leadership style.
“I think that it’s Paul’s collaborative approach to this,” Walz said as he introduced Schnell at a Dec. 20 press conference inside a St. Paul school.
Schnell, 57, has worked in law enforcement for 20 years, including stints as police chief over three suburban departments. For 10 years before that, he worked in community corrections, including one job working with youth offenders at Carver County Court Services. In 1993, he became a deputy sheriff and his law enforcement career took off.
During the commissioner search process, Walz said, stakeholders repeatedly said that Schnell has the leadership qualities needed to bridge the ethnic disparities among incarcerated Minnesotans.
Native Americans, who comprise less than 2 percent of Minnesota’s population, make up 10 percent of the prison population, according to new Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who also spoke at the press conference. African Americans are 7 percent of the state’s population but 35 percent of the prison population, she said.
“He [Schnell] has the perspective to be able to bridge that gap and make that difference,” Walz told reporters. “Those were qualities we were looking for.”
A Republican legislator, who will work closely with Schnell on the new House Corrections subcommittee, has similar views. Schnell, a former Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association board member, has strong relationships among legislators, said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River.
“I think Chief Schnell has a pretty widely respected reputation around the Capitol,” said Zerwas, himself a former law enforcement fingerprint analyst. “Chief Schnell has a ton of experience being at the state Legislature, working on policy positions and initiatives. I think that experience is going to be very beneficial in his new role.”
Schnell comes aboard at a time of stress at corrections. In the waning months of former Commissioner Tom Roy’s eight-year term, a stream of reports surfaced about guards being attacked by inmates.
One guard, Joseph Gomm, 45, was allegedly murdered by an inmate in July. In September, guard Joseph Parise, 37, died of a heart attack after assisting another officer who was assaulted. Staff morale reportedly bottomed out in the wake of the deaths.
Well before that, however, corrections staff were already complaining to lawmakers that corrections has been denied critical funding for offender health care, filling open staff slots and fixing decayed infrastructure—even as lawmakers flirted with re-opening a privately run Appleton prison.
At the press conference, Walz came out firmly against Appleton. “I do not believe it is the private sector’s responsibility to do corrections,” Walz said. “I think it is always a bad idea when recidivism is your business model.”
Asked how he plans to improve labor relations, Schnell said he has much homework to do get up to speed. But he planned to start immediately, he said, by launching talks with union leaders and wardens to explore better ways to protect both corrections staff and offenders.
“That may mean additional resources,” Schnell said. “It may mean looking at the plant and the personnel. There could be a range of things. But we have to start there and I am committed to it.”
Any such solutions, however, must tie back to a larger goal, Schnell said. That’s creating reforms that help offenders succeed once they get released back to the community, while simultaneously keeping the public safe.
Schnell said he looks forward to working with the newly formed Corrections subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato. House Speaker designate Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, has indicated the panel’s primary job will be studying prison staffing levels.
“I think it is going to be a great opportunity for the department to really dig deep into these issues, to explore the ways in which corrections does have a connection with a variety of the state’s interests,” Schnell said of the new committee. “I look forward to working with Representative Considine on those issues moving forward.”
Schnell was not the only commissioner introduced on Dec. 20. New Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker and Office of Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson also were debuted that day.
Walz said the triple rollout was deliberate, if not thematic. What happens to people in elementary school, or before, shapes the trajectory of their lives, the new governor said. Flanagan added that the Department of Higher Education often serves as a “Department of Second Chances” for released inmates.
Both suggested that the three departments can collaborate to eventually put Schnell out of business. “We chose these commissioners because they understand the racial and geographic disparities currently plaguing the good work of these agencies,” Flanagan said.
Zerwas thinks it’s a laudable long-term goal to get corrections working side-by-side with educators, particularly to help prepare inmates for careers and to prevent K-12 students from slipping into the prison pipeline. But that’s not job one, he said.
“I think a lot of his immediate task will be kind of shoring up the works,” Zerwas said of Schnell. “The A-number-one job of the new commissioner of Corrections is really to stop the downward spiral of that agency, which has occurred over the last several years.”
Zerwas said it might be a challenge for Schnell to make the leap from law enforcement, given the time gap since he has worked in corrections. But he called Schnell “an absolutely capable leader” and has little doubt he will succeed.
“I have full confidence in his ability to very quickly ramp up and be in a position to succeed at a state agency that, quite frankly, has had a crisis of leadership,” Zerwas said. “I think he is up to the task of diving in and beginning to work on that issue.”
Before taking his first job as a suburban police chief eight years ago, Schnell worked for the St. Paul Police Department. For four years, he was the department’s lead spokesman under former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington.
On Jan. 3, after this story’s deadline, Walz was scheduled to announce his choice to lead Agriculture, the Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Health Department, the Department of Human Services, the Bureau of Mediation Services and the Department of Human Rights.
On Dec. 18, Walz named Jennifer Ho to head up the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, while also tapping Margaret Anderson Kelliher as MnDOT’s commissioner; Alice Roberts-Davis as the Department of Administration’s commissioner; and Nora Slawik as director of the Metropolitan Council.
He also reappointed Myron Frans to lead Minnesota Management and Budget, the same job he held under Gov. Mark Dayton.