Lawmakers remain divided over private prison reopen

Swift County Commissioner Gary Hendrickx, left, Rep. Tim Miller, center, and Appleton Mayor Chad Syltie spoke in support of legislation to reopen the privately-owned prison. Tim Pugmire|MPR News

Minnesota lawmakers are again considering a contentious proposal to reopen the privately-owned prison in Appleton, Minn., under state management.

The legislation sponsored by Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, directs the state to purchase or lease the Prairie Correctional Facility, which closed in 2010, to address its current shortage of prison beds. Miller pushed a similar bill last year.

During a House Public Safety and Security committee hearing Tuesday, Miller said the private prison is a “fully-functioning, adequate” option for addressing the state's needs.

“We need a solution to prison overcrowding in Minnesota now, and I believe that utilizing the Appleton prison facility is a no-brainer,” Miller said.

Local officials are also backing the bill.

Appleton Mayor Chad Syltie reminded lawmakers that the state prisons in Stillwater and St. Cloud are more than 100 years old.

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“The Appleton prison facility presents a much newer, modern and viable alternative to increasingly old and costly prohibitive prison facilities,” Syltie said.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy spoke against the bill. Roy said he favors a more cost-effective strategy, including changes in drug sentencing and improvements at existing facilities.

“The growth of prison capacity is a concern to us, of course it is,” Roy said. “But this proposal suggests that there’s only one solution to prison growth and that only solution is adding another facility.”

No vote was taken. The proposal will likely be included in a larger public safety bill.

The Appleton facility is owned by CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. It’s unclear how much the state would ultimately pay to purchase or lease the facility.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, offered a harsh critique of the company and warned against entering any deals with it. Hilstrom has repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to pass an outright ban on private prisons

“We do not belong leasing this facility. We do not belong buying this facility. We don’t currently have a need for it and we do not want to be in business with a company like CCA.”