Citing budget shortfall, Department of Corrections to close Togo, Willow River facilities

A sign says "Minnesota Correctional Facility - Willow River"
A correctional facility boot camp in Willow River, Minn. has up to 180 men live in very close quarters. Minnesota officials on Monday announced plans to close correctional facilities in Willow River and Togo.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News file

The Minnesota Department of Corrections plans to close the state’s two smallest correctional facilities — in Togo and Willow River in northeastern Minnesota — to help address a $14 million budget shortfall, the agency announced Monday.

It’s the first time the Corrections Department is closing a state corrections facility in more than two decades since a juvenile facility in Sauk Centre, Minn., closed in 1999. 

“This is rare that we’re seeing this reduction, but necessary, based on the challenges that we face,” said Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell. 

The combined budget of the two facilities is nearly $11 million — out of a total agency budget this year of about $611 million. Most of the 100 positions at the two facilities will be eliminated.

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The layoffs are on top of another roughly 50 jobs that were eliminated two weeks ago because of impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the department’s industry program MINNCOR, which provides job training and opportunities to inmates. 

Schnell said the cuts are intended not only to balance the current fiscal year’s budget, but also to prepare for the future economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic. The agency predicts a $25 million budget deficiency for the two-year period beginning July 2021, the result of rising costs of health care and wage increases among other factors. 

“The last thing we wanted to do was continue to take swipes at cuts every time we turn around, because it takes time to implement these cuts,” the corrections commissioner said. “We elected to address this through the reductions of these two facilities, which will help us ensure that we’re responsible stewards of the budget.”

The agency had made a supplemental budget request to bridge this fiscal year’s budget gap. But lawmakers did not approve that funding at the state Legislature’s last special session. 

The campuses in Willow River and Togo house a minimum security boot camp known as the Challenge Incarceration Program, which allows qualifying nonviolent offenders to earn early release. 

Schnell said his department intends to move the program to other minimum custody sites in Stillwater, Lino Lakes, Faribault or Red Wing by the end of the year. There are 148 offenders currently at the two facilities. 

The union representing many of the affected corrections employees, AFSCME Council 5, released a statement opposing the proposed closures, saying they’ll take action to prevent further layoffs. 

“These workers are on our front lines and deserve our thanks and admiration for their work, not lay-off notices,” said the union’s executive director Julie Bleyhl.