For years, women at the Shakopee prison were banned from the human touch

Crossing the line could mean a trip to solitary confinement.

Crossing the line could mean a trip to solitary confinement. Kyndall Harkness, Star Tribune

Tracy Beltz, warden of the Shakopee women’s prison, says they got some mixed results on a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey back in 2011. Shakopee scored pretty low when it comes to intimate relations between staff and offenders – which is great, she says. But they scored way too high on intimate relationships between prisoners.

“We were fourth highest in the nation,” she says.

Beltz says a lot of inmates had been engaged in unhealthy, co-dependent relationships they didn’t know how to leave. Some were performing romantic or sexual favors for supplies like deodorant and conditioner.

Safety, Beltz says, is “absolutely paramount” at the prison, and this stuff couldn’t continue.

“I said, ‘We need to stop this,’” she says.

So for the past "five or six years," inmates were instructed not to touch each other at all -- no hugs, no hand-holding, no nothing. Crossing the line sometimes meant a trip to solitary confinement.

Beltz realizes it “seems pretty harsh,” but she wanted to create a safe environment for women who have been victims of trauma and may not be able to advocate for themselves on how or if they wanted people to touch them. This seemed to her like the best way to take care of everyone.

But the the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota got word about “very serious concerns” that inmates had not been allowed to touch each other, not even to share comfort or perform a simple act of kindness. Touch, ACLU Legal Director Teresa Nelson says, is “integral to who we are as human beings.”

“One of our advocates said to us, ‘I defy you to go a day without having human touch,’” she says. “It’s not possible.”

Besides, it wasn't a rule enforced at any of the men’s prisons. And most of the women were in for nonviolent crimes.

ACLU Staff Attorney David McKinney sent a data request about any supposed “no-touch” policy, which had “no mention” on the Department of Corrections website. In fact, its very existence, according to the Star Tribune, was “long denied” by the department. But handbooks and training documents obtained by the Tribune say otherwise. All touching, “regardless of context,” was forbidden – “even something as fleeting as a high-five,” the Tribune said.

“We were kind of getting some mixed messages from staff at the facility,” Nelson says. Not long after that, the ACLU heard from the prison that it was about to change the policy.

Beltz says they'd working toward this all along, including a prison-wide sexual safety assessment and forming a healthy relationships curriculum. In a recent internal memo, Beltz shared a set of preliminary rules on “appropriate touch,” which allow for fist bumps, high fives, handshakes, and pats on the shoulder. No hugging, though.

Nelson’s not sure what the final version of the policy is going to look like. She doesn’t discount Beltz’s point about protecting women from abuse. But eliminating all touch – even as a stopgap measure – seems to her like a “knee-jerk, uninformed reaction.”

Beltz, meanwhile, doesn’t have any regrets.

“I feel comfortable we did what we needed to do, and we were thoughtful in our approach.”