On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Detainees wanted: Minnesota's closed private prison eyes a deal with ICE

In western Minnesota, one company is hoping to house hundreds of immigrant detainees. But it’s dividing the community.

Share story

An empty, privately-owned prison
Former Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn., is owned by a private company, CoreCivic. The company is hoping to reopen the prison, which closed in 2010, as a federal immigrant detention center.
Mark Steil | MPR News 2015

For nearly 10 years, owners of a shuttered prison in western Minnesota have been keen on bringing inmates back.

They want to fill the former Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn., and its 1,600 empty beds. One idea the private company has turned to is reopening the prison as a federal immigrant detention center.

It’s hard to say how likely that would be — any negotiations between the facility’s owner, CoreCivic, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, are private. But the proposals have divided this town of 1,300, and alarmed some residents who say the firm is too focused on profit and has a national track record of mistreating inmates.

Putting an ICE detention facility in an agricultural town that relies on immigrants “is not who we are,” said Amy Bacigalupo, an activist leading the effort to stop a proposed contract with ICE. “We are an inclusive and welcoming community, and immigrants are really important in our community.”

ICE has been interested in finding a place to house 200 to 600 detainees within 180 miles of St. Paul, according to a request for information it released in 2017. After receiving bids this year, ICE officials indicated just last week on a government site that “it is not in the government’s best interest to make any award under this solicitation” and closed the bidding process.

But that doesn’t mean negotiations with CoreCivic or other entities for a new detention facility in Minnesota are dead.

ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer said the bidding process was canceled this month due to not receiving acceptable proposals, but that discussions are underway to determine next steps. That could mean reissuing requests or expanding an existing contract. ICE currently contracts with the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office to house up to 300 detainees in its Elk River jail.

About 430 people were held on alleged immigration violations in Minnesota as of December 2018, according to the latest detention figures from Syracuse University, which routinely gathers this data.

Several private prison companies and local governments have expressed interest in contracting with ICE to house detainees in facilities mostly in rural Minnesota.

While the process has stalled in some cities, it continues to move forward in others. Two sites that would’ve served the St. Paul region — Pine Island in southeastern Minnesota and New Richmond, Wis. — never came to fruition. But cities like Appleton ad Elk River are seeing a continued push to house immigrant detainees, with officials citing the economic benefits their communities could experience from a facility.

Tennessee-based CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, is the second-highest paid contractor for immigration detention in the country. In Appleton, company representatives informed county officials this spring of their intention to submit a proposal to ICE.

Swift County Board Chairman Gary Hendrickx toured the prison this spring and backs the idea of housing immigrant detainees there.

“When we’re looking at the prison, we feel we have a base of employees that we could garner in our region that would be excellent in this line of work and give a lot of care and respect to the individuals who are incarcerated,” said Hendrickx.

He said the facility was still in good shape, and CoreCivic is continuing to maintain the property. Workers were recently fixing the roof, he said. 

CoreCivic is still paying taxes on the vacant property, with the last bill totaling nearly $900,000, according to Swift County property tax records.

Hendrickx said the county board has signed resolutions in the past supporting CoreCivic in its bids to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

IMG_3600
Swift County Board Chairman Gary Hendrickx, left, Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, center, and then-Appleton Mayor Chad Syltie spoke in support of legislation to reopen the privately-owned prison.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News file

Critics say CoreCivic facilities are often poorly managed and understaffed, resulting in inhumane treatment of the detainees. The company was sued last month after a 1-year-old girl died weeks after she was released from an immigrant detention facility in Texas.

But Hendrickx described criticism against the company as “rhetoric,” and said that he’s known people who used to work at the prison who had a more favorable perspective on the company.

CoreCivic spokesperson Brandon Bissell wouldn’t offer specifics about the Appleton proposal. But in a statement, he said, “We stand ready to assist all government partners and continue to market the Prairie Correctional Facility as a potential solution. At the same time, we remain committed to the state of Minnesota as a lease/purchase option to be operated by state employees.”

The issue of reopening the Appleton prison has come up repeatedly at the state Legislature over the past several years. But efforts to pair the facility with the Minnesota Department of Corrections never materialized. Republican lawmakers are for it, while Democrats oppose it.

A study commissioned by the Legislature in 2017 found that the facility would need about $79 million in repairs over 15 years.

Whether ICE is still in talks with CoreCivic is not clear. But one entity that has made its proposal to ICE public is Sherburne County. In May, it submitted a proposal to expand its existing jail to up to 500 beds.

But the sheriff’s office did not have time to complete a six-month-long environmental study required by ICE, which county officials say was the reason they lost the bid.

Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson David Unze said the office submitted an amendment to its proposal to include information from past environmental studies to try to fulfill that requirement.

“We still think we’re in line,” Unze said. “But we just haven't heard anything, and we’re waiting like anybody else.”

The Sherburne County’s existing contract with ICE expires in 2020, but Unze said it’s not clear when the agency will decide whether to extend it. The extension would then allow the county to increase its capacity by 200 beds.

Protesters pray an sing hymns outside of the Sherburne County Jail.
Protesters pray and sing hymns outside of the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River, Minn., in December 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights, has tracked immigration detention facility proposals since 2011. He said private companies have repeatedly pitched facilities to house immigrant detainees, but eight bids for ICE facilities have failed in the Chicago region alone. The latest proposal this year was thwarted after the Illinois state legislature passed a law banning private immigration detention centers.

“Once people in local communities find out more, not just about immigration detentions but about the for-profit prison industry,” Tsao said, “the less they like it, and the less they want one of these facilities built in their community, very often in their backyard.”

That’s been true in communities in and around Minnesota.

In the southeastern corner of the state, a Utah-based firm wanted to build a new 640-bed detention center in Pine Island. Local city officials shared their support for the plan, but then reversed it in the face of community outcry. Eventually, the Prairie Island Indian Community bought the land and later announced plans to build housing there for tribal members.

In New Richmond, Wis., the city decided a 500-bed detention facility didn’t align with its long-term comprehensive plan. The company that wanted to build there, Immigration Centers of America, then withdrew its proposal.

Correction (Aug. 23, 2019): An earlier version of the story misstated the number of immigration detention beds that Sherburne County has proposed to add.