Tough economy forces shutdown of Appleton prison

Appleton's prison
Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn., pictured on Jan. 5, 2010. The private prison is owned by Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America. It opened in 1992.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

When the Prairie Correctional Facility shuts down Feb. 2, this town of about 2,600 will lose its largest employer, a major institution in Southwestern Minnesota.

The prison on the south side of Appleton employs 120, down from a high of nearly 400 people in better days as the number of workers though has dwindled along with the inmate population.

Built for nearly 1700 prisoners, the prison now houses only about 200 in various pods. Each is self contained jail unit, holding about 50 prisoners. As each bus load of inmates is moved out of the prison and returned to their home state, the remaining inmates are moved into a shrinking number of operational pods.

"We've pretty much got everything closed down but one side," Assistant Warden Barb Seidl said recently while walking through nearly empty hallways. "We close one pod or one unit at a time when we have the space to consolidate."

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The facility is owned by the nation's largest private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America. State governments from around the country have signed contacts to send Prairie Correctional Facility to house inmates, Warden Tim Wengler said.

But for a variety of reasons, those contracts lately are hard to find.

"The biggest thing is I think we became a victim of the economy," Wengler said.

Prairie Correctional Facility
An empty cell at Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn., pictured on Jan. 5, 2010. The prison can hold nearly 1,700 inmates.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The downturn reduced state government budgets, which in turn lead to cutbacks in prison spending. Some states choose to release inmates early to reduce prison populations. Others choose to double bunk inmates rather than ship them out of state. Still others choose to keep prisoners home to provide jobs in their own facilities during a tight economy.

The prison also faced competition from one of its biggest customers: the state of Minnesota. The state once had more than 1,000 inmates at Appleton. Wengler said that number dwindled as Minnesota added cells in its prison system.

"The Department of Corrections did their job the right way and we're a victim of that," Wengler said.

Minnesota inmates, the last prisoners in Appleton, will be bused out in the coming weeks. The loss of those inmates is causing concern for the local economy because of the jobs that will be lost -- and the resulting effect on area businesses.

On a cold winter day, Peggy Novotny spread salt on the sidewalk in front of her cafe in Appleton. She has sympathy for the people losing jobs at the prison.

Warden Tim Wengler
Prairie Correctional Facility Warden Tim Wengler, pictured on Jan. 5, 2010, in Appleton, Minn. Wengler says the prison will reopen, but he can't say when.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"Everybody's sad," said Novotny. She too will lose income.

"Because it brings business into town, so it's going to be hard on a lot of places," Novotny said. "I know we're going to lose some business over it. And the gas station and the grocery stores. So it's going to be tough times."

Beyond the loss of business, the prison shutdown will also put a crimp in the city's revenues, Appleton Mayor Ron Ronning said.

"The $1.1 million that this facility brings forth to this community each year, makes up approximately 60 percent of our budget in the city of Appleton," Ronning said of the total taxes and fees the prison pays.

Ronning expects the county to reduce the prison's assessed value when it closes, which would mean less property tax revenue for the city. As a result, the city could lose as much as $200,000 in property taxes alone when the prison closes, he said.

Mayor Ron Ronning
Appleton Mayor Ron Ronning, pictured on Jan. 5, 2010, works in the Prairie Correctional Facility's medical department in Appleton, Minn. He says the shutdown will cost the city substantial tax and services revenue.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The only thing certain is the prison will close. No one knows when it will reopen, and Ronning said that's not only hard for the city but laid off workers as well. He should know. He's one of them.

"I work in the medical department here at the facility," Ronning said. "Been here for the past over 15 years."

Like many employees, Ronning plans to wait out the shutdown and try to get his old job back when the prison re-opens.

Wengler said another CCA prison in Ohio closed for a year and a half in a situation similar to the Appleton's. He expects the shutdown in Appleton to be shorter as once new inmates are found, they can be moved to prison fairly quickly.

"We're gearing up, to be re-opened in 30 days," Wengler said.

If it can find new prisoners to get through the next few years, things look pretty good for the Appleton prison.

Minnesota corrections officials say they'll likely begin sending inmates to Prairie Correctional Facility again in about two years. In 10 years or so the state may need all of the Appleton cells.