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A provision in the public safety/judiciary omnibus bill would authorize the Corrections Department to reopen and run the currently closed, privately owned Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minnesota. (Submitted photo: Swift County)

Lawmakers mull reopening of Appleton prison

Accord on reopening a former private prison as a state-run facility hangs on a single phrase in the massive public safety/judiciary omnibus bill, according to a GOP legislator pushing to reopen the Appleton facility.

“We are down to a sentence in legislation,” said Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, the measure’s House author, testified Tuesday. “I think that is really good.”

No one could accuse that sentence of brevity.

It reads: “At such time that the commissioner determines that the department has an insufficient number of prison beds to house the current or projected prison population and needs to expand an existing facility or build a new facility, the commissioner shall enter into a contract either to purchase and operate or to lease-to-own and operate an existing facility located in Appleton, Minnesota.”

Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy testifies at a recent conference committee hearing. On Tuesday, Roy told public safety/judiciary conference committee members that he would not commit to supporting the Appleton prison’s reopening as a state-run facility. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy testifies at a recent conference committee hearing. On Tuesday, Roy told public safety/judiciary conference committee members that he would not commit to supporting the Appleton prison’s reopening as a state-run facility. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

That wording means détente with the Dayton administration might be a little farther away than Miller initially imagined, however. While agreeing that Appleton should be considered in the mix of his department’s future options, State Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy indicated Tuesday that he has a beef with two words in that serpentine sentence — “shall enter.”

“I’m very concerned about the proscriptive nature of that particular line,” Roy said. “This is an, ‘If x, then y’ suggestion that there is only one solution to the prison population issue.”

The battle over Appleton’s fate goes back a year, when Republicans passed legislation though committee to reopen the 1,600-bed, privately run Prairie Correctional Facility. Protester backlash halted debate at one point while DFL lawmakers resisted doing business with the prison’s controversial owner, Corrections Corporation of America — now called CoreCivic. Gov. Mark Dayton said he would veto any bill to reopen Appleton as a private prison.

“The private prison industry has played a huge role in panicking people falsely on crime rates to drive up incarceration levels and warp the public policymaking process,” Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said last year.

However, Miller and his co-author, Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, testified Tuesday that 2016’s conditions no longer apply.

Under their new proposal, the state would either buy the Appleton facility outright, or enter into a lease-to-own contract with CoreCivic. In either case, the reopened prison would be staffed and operated by Corrections.

“This is a state-run facility with state union employees,” Lang said. “I am glad I am not here to defend the private prisons.”

Further, the lawmakers say that their legislation leaves it up to Roy or a successor to decide whether to reopen the prison at all, and then only if no better way to manage the rising inmate population surfaces.

“All this bill does is ask that when the need arises the Appleton prison would be the first place we would go,” Lang said.

‘Strapped for space’

But, to Roy, that is a big ask.

If the conference committee passes a bill that includes the “shall enter” provisions, Roy said, he could effectively be blocked from pursuing other means of reducing Minnesota’s incarceration levels.

Currently, the state’s prison capacity is about 10,000 offenders, but it is over-capacity by some 300 to 500 inmates, according to Lang. That forces the state to contract with county jails to house overflow inmates. A $141 million Corrections Department request to add 500 beds to the Rush City corrections facility was not included in Dayton’s 2016 bonding proposal.

Dayton acknowledged the problem in a press conference Wednesday. “Our prisons are very strapped for space,” he said. “That is not a desirable situation.”

The governor said he does not rule out a new prison in the future. “If the trends continue and we keep putting more people into prisons, at some point may need another one,” Dayton said. However, he defers to Roy’s judgment that no new prison is needed “this year.”

Roy told committee members Tuesday that the state has taken steps to slow the offender population’s growth. Last year, for instance, the Legislature passed drug-sentencing reforms aimed at sending offenders to treatment instead of jail.

Other alternatives, some not currently on the table, also are available, Roy said. If the state permitted prisoner release after serving 60 percent of sentences rather than the current two-thirds, for example, the population would fall by 2,000 over the next three years with little effect on recidivism, Roy said.

But if the clause becomes law, not only would it force his hand, Roy said, it would put the state into a terrible bargaining position with the facility’s current owners.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, questions s a testifier during a recent conference committee hearing. A query from Hilstrom on Tuesday revealed that the Appleton prison owners’ initial asking price was $99 million. Its tax-assessed valuation is said to be between $12 million and $14 million. (Staff Photo: Kevin Featherly)

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, questions s a testifier during a recent conference committee hearing. A query from Hilstrom on Tuesday revealed that the Appleton prison owners’ initial asking price was $99 million. Its tax-assessed valuation is said to be between $12 million and $14 million. (Staff Photo: Kevin Featherly)

CoreCivic appears poised to ask a lot. Under questioning from Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, Miller said the company’s initial asking price was $99 million — $33 million a year over three years. It said it could accept between $6 million and $8 million a year on a lease-to-own basis, with the amount paid applied toward final purchase, Miller added.

However, those numbers compare to the facility’s tax-assessment value of just $12 million to $14 million, Miller said in response to Hilstrom.

Miller acknowledged those figures “seem damaging” but aren’t “really relevant.” They represent the company’s opening bid in negotiations, he said. Any ultimate purchase would be made based on a “fair, appraised value,” he said.

Supporters of the reopening say there are good reasons to acquire the Appleton prison. Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, offered safety and rehabilitation as two of them.

He said that by transferring inmates from county jails to Appleton, offenders would have access to state-financed community re-entry programs that counties jails lack. The new facility also could receive offenders from existing prisons, alleviating overcrowding and increasing safety both for offenders and staff.

“The doors are more than bulging at the seams — they are exploding,” Johnson said. “We don’t have room for everybody.”

At one point Tuesday, committee co-chair Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, expressed frustration with the Dayton administration over what he perceives as foot-dragging on Appleton. The rural Swift County community is economically depressed, he said, and offers a viable asset that could solve many of the Corrections Department’s inmate issues.

“Is there any language,” Cornish asked Roy, “that we could present to you that would convince you that it was right to open up Appleton?”

“I think I need to not commit to opening Appleton at this point in time,” Roy replied.

“The Department of Corrections and governor haven’t been much of a help,” Cornish then told committee members. “They have got their mind set on building more prisons the way they want to. And it is my mindset to not do that.”

The prison issue remained unresolved as discussion moved onto the dozens of other policy provisions included in the public safety/judiciary omnibus bill. At this writing, the House and Senate versions were not yet reconciled and conference committee meetings were ongoing.


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