SHAKOPEE, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota women's prison is discontinuing a no-touch policy barring inmates from shaking hands or giving high-fives that critics called old-fashioned and unnecessarily cruel.
The Shakopee woman's prison has banned unsanctioned contact between inmates for eight years. Administrators said they implemented the rules due to a rise in inappropriate and sometimes nonconsensual sexual conduct between prisoners.
"It wasn't a healthy policy," state Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said Friday. "Over time, those things have become antiquated."
Shortly after Schnell was appointed corrections commissioner in January, he began hearing complaints about the no-touch restrictions from volunteers and activists. Current and former inmates said corrections officers often failed to distinguish between sexual touching and innocuous gestures such as a pat on the back, and that they used the ban as an excuse to dole out punishments.
"We heard that basic compassion was not able to be demonstrated," Schnell said. He said he believes the upcoming change will foster a "more humane environment."
Under new guidelines that take effect in mid-July, inmates at the state's only women's prison will be allowed to fist bump, shake hands and give high-fives, but still not give hugs, the Star Tribune reported. Most of the inmates at Shakopee are serving time for nonviolent crimes.
Prisoners are permitted a brief hug and kiss on the cheek at the beginning and end of each visit from a family member. Parents are allowed to hold children under 9 on their laps.
Shakopee Warden Tracy Beltz outlined a set of draft rules on "appropriate touch" in a recent internal memo. The note came three months after an ACLU lawyer filed a data request for all materials on the "no touch policy."
"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 email. She said the prison has "been moving in this direction for some time."
Beltz said the policy banning touching among inmates stemmed from heightened sensitivity toward a prison population with high levels of trauma and sexual exploitation.
An audit by the Bureau of Justice Statistics around 2011 found that sexual misconduct between prisoners at Shakopee was among the highest in the nation, she said. She was so alarmed by those results that she immediately instituted a "hands-off" policy, meant to be temporary.
The policy remained in place for years as corrections staff looked at how to balance the needs of female prisoners with the concerns of those who insisted they did not want to be touched, Beltz said.
"It's more complex than people think it is," said Beltz, who has run Shakopee for 11 years. She plans to implement the new measures before she transfers to Faribault prison on Aug. 1.
About 640 adults are housed at the women's prison. Shakopee is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Minneapolis.
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