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$141.5M sought for prison expansion

Just 15 years after the Rush City Correctional Facility’s highly secure doors opened for the first time, the state prison is up for a major expansion.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections wants the 2016 Legislature to approve $141.5 million in state bonding money for a 167,000-square-foot expansion project that would add 500 beds and support space to the prison at 7600 525th St., on the northeastern edge of Rush City. The facility now houses 1,000 male offenders.

As the department sees it, the project comes down to simple math.

“We have more inmates than we have room in our facilities, and we want to be able to manage our population within our existing structures,” said Terry Carlson, Corrections’ deputy commissioner in the facilities division. “And even with this, we are working on other policy issues to manage the population growth.”

It’s the biggest component of the department’s $210.3 million 2016 bonding request, which also includes $30 million for asset preservation, $19 million for a new intake system and other upgrades at the St. Cloud prison, and $5 million for 60 new beds at the Lino Lakes prison, among other projects.

Major bonding bills are typically considered in even-numbered years, so the timing is right in a sense. But the funding request faces a hard road through the legislative process as it competes with higher education, housing and other funding priorities.

Some policymakers and outside organizations say the state needs to take a closer look at reform measures and figure out why prisons are overcrowded before splurging on prison expansions.

Rep. Alice Hausman

Rep. Alice Hausman

State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, the DFL lead on the House Capital Investment Committee, said the request is in for an uphill battle.

“The point is we don’t want to go that direction [of just adding more beds],” said Hausman, who expects to see a bonding bill in the $800 million to $850 million range next year. “Once you build them, there is an operation and maintenance price tag that is not insignificant.”

Hausman said there has been talk of adding capacity through privatization, though it’s not something she would support. “I strongly oppose that, because the record in this country of privatizing prisons is not a very pretty picture,” she said.

Still, Corrections Department officials say the prison expansion is sorely needed.

Aaron Swanum, information officer for the department, said in an email that state prisons reached “full-bed capacity” in July 2013. The state’s current inmate population exceeds bed capacity by about 500.

As stopgap measures, the department says it has been forced to convert dayroom spaces into makeshift housing and to turn to county jails, where it pays $55 a day for each offender.

But county jails are a poor option for long-term housing of prisoners, because 90 percent of the inmates have treatment needs that can’t be addressed in those facilities, according to Swanum.

Making matters worse, the department projects that the state’s prison population will grow from the current 10,119 inmates to 10,761 within the next seven years.

“Long-term projections show a need for additional capacity,” Swanum wrote. “Remaining at status quo will create significant prison overcrowding,” resulting in full county jails and “the possibility of housing offenders at expensive out-of-state facilities.”

The Rush City prison is one of three “Level 4” prisons in the state, the second-most secure classification behind the Level 5 Oak Park Heights prison, according to the department’s website. The other Level 4 prisons are in Stillwater and St. Cloud.

The Rush City expansion project calls for 167,000 square feet of new space, including 18,000 square feet for chemical dependency treatment and mental health care.

The new space would include kitchen, dining, programming, education and library space, as well as the two offender housing units and infrastructure expansion for 500 new beds.

The project would address overcrowding in segregation housing and allow for a much-needed expansion of the behavioral services program at Rush City, the department said in its bonding request.

Rep. Brian Johnson

Rep. Brian Johnson

State Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said the prison expansion would be a good economic boost for the Rush City area, which is part of his legislative district. But he stopped short of endorsing the funding request.

“I want to see all the information before I make a final decision,” said Johnson, who noted that Minnesota’s incarceration rate is fourth-lowest among all U.S. states, despite the overcrowding. “I want to make sure we are spending the state’s money properly.”

Rush City is fully on board with the project, said Amy Mell, city administrator for the town of about 3,000 people, which is 60 miles north of the Twin Cities off Interstate 35.

“They are hoping to add another 150 jobs; that is something the city is excited about,” Mell said. “Over half of the employees live within 20 miles of the prison, so we have quite a few that live in Rush City and the Rush City area.”

Mell said the prison site has ample room for new space. “When it was built, they were thinking of expansion in the future,” she said.

But prison expansions are getting strong pushback from groups like ISAIAH, a faith-based organization that advocates for racial and economic equality in Minnesota.

Instead of adding more prison capacity, the state should focus on “solutions that work,” such as early childhood education, juvenile programs designed to keep kids out of jail, and sentencing reform, said Lars Negstad, a strategic campaign coordinator for ISAIAH.

“We don’t think we should be building any more prisons or expanding any more prison beds at all,” he said.


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