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Tunnel discovery foils escape attempt at Bayport prison

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Officials at the Bayport prison foiled an attempted escape shortly before noon on Wednesday, after a correctional officer discovered an underground tunnel leading from the basement of one of the facility's industrial-manufacturing buildings.

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No inmates escaped.

It was the first attempt of its kind in the institution's memory, officials said.

"I want to assure the public that no one escaped, that they are not in any danger as a result of this," said Joan Fabian, commission for the Minnesota Department of Corrections at a press conference held at department headquarters Thursday afternoon.

The department is investigating the tunnel, which was excavated in the basement of one of five industrial buildings along the prison complex's west wall. The industry complex has been shut down.

Officially known as Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater, the prison is located on Stagecoach Trail in Bayport. Known as a "close-security," level-four facility, it houses 1,400 male offenders and has 65 security staff. The highest security level at Minnesota prisons is level five, the same as at the state prison in Oak Park Heights.

An undisclosed number of inmates had been working to dig a tunnel from the basement toward the wall. The inmates had apparently made progress; however, officials maintained that they had not yet reached the wall and would have had to contend with its base if they had.

The tunnel was "very well hidden" and "large enough for someone to enter," said Dennis Benson, the department's deputy commissioner. The distance between the building and the wall is 50 or 60 feet.

"It was the beginning of what we would coin a very sophisticated tunnel that was headed toward the perimeter wall, we can also say they had quite a distance to go," he said.

Details regarding the dimensions and length of the tunnel, tools used, as well as the amount of time the tunnel was under construction, was not released. A supervisor reported the tunnel after discovering it; however, the circumstances of the discovery were not made clear. No one was inside the tunnel at the time.

Officials said more information would be made available as the investigation progresses.

Four inmates were assigned to work in the building's basement area, which is used for storing raw materials used for manufacturing. A correctional officer was assigned to watch the basement and first floors of the building.

About 350 inmates work each day in the industrial buildings, which cover 400,000 square feet and produce farm machinery, furniture, upholstery and other products. The buildings have been used to make products since at least the 1930s.

"We've said so many times that keeping offenders busy is the best security that money can buy," Benson said.

The last escape from the prison was in 1988, when an inmate scaled the walls and traveled a short distance on foot before being caught, Benson said. In 1982, two inmates were sealed in boxes that were delivered off-site. Although their escape was initially successful, they were eventually recaptured.

Despite its being romanticized in movies, tunnel digging is an uncommon escape method, officials said.

"In my 34 years, this is our first tunnel," Benson said, noting that electronic systems in observation towers and on the perimeter wall have been upgraded recently.

"Tunnels are unusual in my experience. People usually get out in a box, or a barrel," added David Crist, the department's assistant commissioner for facilities and a former warden at the prison. Inmates have also impersonated correctional officers, fashioned ropes and create gangplanks to assist their escape attempts.

"It all sort of depends on the physical plant and surrounding systems available," he said.

The 1914 prison is a collection of multi-storied buildings within a square perimeter wall. Were it built today, it would have a very different layout, Benson said. The two-and-three-story industrial buildings, for instance, would be single storied and "wide open," with better sight lines for correctional staff and security cameras to observe inmate activities.

More than 400 security cameras are installed throughout the facility. However, the tunnel was dug in an area where no cameras could view it, Crist said. As a result of the escape attempt, more cameras are likely to be installed, he said.

When the tunnel was discovered, the prison immediately returned all prisoners to their cells and counted them to be sure none had escaped, said Lynn Dingle, the prison's warden.

"This, of course, is something that no warden would want to have happen in their facility, so we take it very seriously," said Lynn Dingle, the prison's warden. "Was it a shock or surprise? I've learned over the years 'Never to say never.' They have a lot of time on their hands and they are very sophisticated. But our job is to catch that and that's what my staff did."

Mark Brouwer is at 651-439-4366 and at mbrouwer@stillwatercourier.com.

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