Shakopee Women's Prison to Discontinue 'No-Touch' Policy
By Liz Sawyer, StarTribune
“It wasn’t a healthy policy,” Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said.
No handshakes. No hugs. No physical touch — even in a time of grief.
For the past eight years, unsanctioned contact between inmates at the Shakopee women’s prison has carried with it the possibility of a trip to solitary confinement.
Now, under pressure from advocacy groups like the ACLU, the Minnesota Department of Corrections is quietly changing Shakopee’s restrictive “no-touch” policy — a practice critics call cruel and unconstitutional.
The DOC has long denied that the policy even exists, but department handbooks and other training documents obtained by the Star Tribune show that the facility forbids all touching regardless of the context — even something as fleeting as a high-five. The protocols were not enforced at any of the men’s prisons, only the institution for women, despite the fact that most are serving time for nonviolent crimes.
Administrators say they implemented the rules when Shakopee was seeing a rise in inappropriate and, sometimes, nonconsensual sexual conduct between prisoners. Their response? Eliminate touching of any kind.
“It wasn’t a healthy policy,” DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said Friday. “Over time, those things have become antiquated.”
Shortly after his appointment in January, Schnell began hearing complaints from volunteers and activists about no-touch restrictions. Current and former inmates complained that corrections officers often failed to distinguish between innocuous gestures like a pat on the back and those of a sexual nature. Several inmates told the Star Tribune that they feared fixing a roommate’s hair or assisting someone who had fallen because some officersused the policy as an excuse to dole out punishment.
“We heard that basic compassion was not able to be demonstrated,” Schnell said. He believes the upcoming change, to be implemented in mid-July, will foster a “more humane environment.”
Shakopee Warden Tracy Beltz outlined a set of draft protocols on “appropriate touch” in a recent internal memo. The note came three months after an ACLU lawyer filed a strongly worded data request for all materials on the “no touch policy.”
Under new guidelines, inmates will be permitted to fist bump, shake hands and give high-fives. Hugs will remain off limits.
“Given this is a significant change for offenders, and for staff, I would ask every supervisor to review, discuss [and suggest modifications],” Beltz wrote in a June 17 e-mail, adding that the facility has “been moving in this direction for some time.”
Prisoners are permitted a brief hug and kiss on the cheek at the beginning and end of each visit from a family member. And parents are allowed to hold children under 9 on their laps.
But not everyone is lucky enough to have regular visitors.
That means some inmates have gone weeks, months or even years without experiencing any physical affection, and perhaps physical contact of any kind.
“We know that as human beings, touch is an essential part of how we communicate and connect,” said Rebecca Shlafer, a pediatrics professor at the University of Minnesota who works with incarcerated mothers.
Just as infants are soothed by being held, adults are psychologically supported by being embraced by those they care about, she said. “The absence of physical touch is really devastating for social and emotional well-being.”
An environment devoid of touch can be especially difficult for women who have recently given birth, advocates say.