Dept. of Corrections case workers create change, improve work conditions

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Like many workplaces during the pandemic, meetings at the Dept. of Corrections (DOC) went virtual almost overnight, meaning court hearings that used to be in person were now expected to be remote with little notice and varying resources across the state’s 11 correctional facilities. 

Early on, a small committee decided case managers and their support staff would cover most of the new tasks of maintaining facility contacts, scheduling availability, connecting the hearings and identifying short-term challenges to the DOC and the courts. 

“Nobody thought it would be a permanent process for remote hearings,” said Amanda Tuthill, caseworker at the Faribault Correctional Facility and longtime MAPE member. “Since the very beginning, we’ve asked for policy and procedure to be provided for this; to not only help us, but also the court administrators, judges and attorneys from 87 different counties in Minnesota.” 

Weeks turned months and months turned into years without clear policies or procedures around virtual court hearings despite case workers asking for a condensed staff team or creation of a new remote court officer position to take on this work. 

“Case workers scheduling and connecting court hearings doesn’t fall into our mission of a person-centered approach at the DOC,” Tuthill said. “We ran into an even bigger concern throughout these hearings was who had the ‘upper hand’ during the court hearing – does the DOC or the judge who is presiding?” 

As frustrations grew, the “final straw” moment came with a Lino Lakes case worker was threatened with being held in contempt of court for doing his job while handling a remote hearing. 

Word traveled quickly throughout DOC and MAPE members organized a special meeting to hear what happened and decide how to respond. 

“It was disheartening after hearing that case worker’s story. A lot of us felt terrible for him and were discouraged he was put into that position,” Tuthill said. “We had been consistent and open with our concerns to leadership – emails, meet and confers, other meetings. After three years of doing these meetings, something had to change.” 

The team decided to launch a petition demanding a clear policy for virtual hearings and better behavior from court professionals. In just three days, 74% of MAPE DOC case workers from nine facilities signed the petition. 

Since then, management has convened a virtual court hearing team – which Tuthill is a part of, created a hotline for further issues, worked with the court system on a new scheduling process and requested more than a million dollars from the Legislature to invest in the technology and staff necessary to permanently alleviate the strain on case workers. 

“Our virtual court hearing team has been meeting for a couple months now and it’s been going well,” Tuthill said. “Leadership has been very receptive to a lot of the information we provide. 

“It’s made a positive impact for MAPE and DOC because it reminded us of the importance of getting involved and creating the voice for change and making a difference when something hits home like that.” 

Tuthill said DOC staff want to be part of reasonable and collaborative solutions and know firsthand issues that may arise now that virtual hearings are here to stay. The team is working on a program to increase efficiency and communications between the DOC and courts as well defining operating policies and distributing resources so all facilities are equipped to implement the new virtual hearing standards. 

“It’s not going to be a quick and easy process. It will take consistent time and effort and collaboration from all levels,” Tuthill said. “We’ve opened a whole new operation and reshaped prior practices. We hope leadership continues to show us support in creating clear guidance to restructure this process.”