Plan to reopen Minnesota private prison divides Capitol

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Appleton, Minn.
A privately run prison in Appleton, Minn., closed in 2010, costing the area 350 jobs, according to Swift County Commissioner Gary Hendrickx.
Mark Steil | MPR News

A Minnesota House panel on Tuesday approved Republican-backed legislation that would reopen the privately owned prison in Appleton, Minn., under state management. 

Supporters see the move as a way to create some much-needed jobs in a struggling part of rural western Minnesota. Opponents, however, argued there would be a high human price to such economic development. Their loud objections forced lawmakers to briefly shut down the public hearing. 

Committee members later approved the bill 10-7 on a party-line vote with Republicans supporting and Democrats against. Those divisions are likely to remain as it moves through the Legislature. Lawmakers expect to have a clearer estimate of the bill's cost by its next committee stop.

Appleton's prison
Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn.
Mark Steil | MPR News file 2010

State Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, called the bill a common-sense solution to the current overcrowding in Minnesota correctional facilities. Miller said the state could add 1,600 prison beds by leasing the mothballed Prairie Correctional Facility from Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA.

"I recognize that there's been some concern about the company that owns this facility, which is precisely why we have drafted the bill in this way," said Miller, the bill's sponsor. "The company would have no involvement in the daily operations, staffing or inmate care at the facility. It would be entirely run by the DOC, just like any other prison facility in the state." 

Miller said the proposal would result in hundreds of well-paying union jobs. Dozens of Appleton-area residents traveled to St. Paul to highlight the potential benefits during the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee hearing.

When the prison closed in 2010, it cost the area 350 jobs, said Swift County Commissioner Gary Hendrickx.

"Swift County had one of the highest unemployment rates in Minnesota at 6.2 (percent)," he said. "The peak was 8.2. So, this region needs it. That's why you have the people coming out today. This is a facility that needs to be open, and we're looking forward to it."

"We have an asset and the state has a problem and we think they match up pretty well together," added Swift County Rural Development Authority Executive Director Jennifer Frost.

Several Appleton-area residents spoke in support of the bill. But that testimony was frequently interrupted by others in the audience, despite the efforts of Rep. Tony Cornish, the committee chair, to keep order. Cornish, R-Vernon Center, eventually called a recess.

"We want them to take money and put it back into the families, put it back into programs that invest in a proper quality of life for Minnesota," said bill opponent Darnella Wade of St. Paul after the committee recessed. "What we're saying for the future, while we're here, is we don't want to be in jail. We want to work."  

Wade said she thinks lawmakers are more concerned about 350 prison jobs than about 1,600 prisoners.

When the hearing resumed, the Appleton residents were gone. Opponents had their turn at the microphone. 

Legislators should be talking about closing prisons, not opening more, said the Rev. Brian Herron of the faith-based coalition group ISAIAH.

"There's no way you're going to open something and not find a way to fill it," he told lawmakers. "It's going to be filled with black and brown bodies. We already know that." 

State Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill with a statewide ban on private prisons. Hilstrom said the state had good reasons for ending its relationship with CCA six years ago. She said the company cherry-picked prisoners and failed to provide state-required services.

"It was Gov. Pawlenty in 2010 who stopped renting beds," Hilstrom said. "So, this isn't a Democratic or a Republican issue. This is about doing right for the state of Minnesota."