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Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, testified last week for his bill authorizing the purchase of the Appleton prison, as did Swift County Commissioner Gary Hendrickx, seated to Miller’s right. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Appleton prison purchase inches forward

Rep. Tim Miller’s bid to reopen the Appleton prison would permit the state to spend up to $74.1 million to buy the former Prairie Correctional Facility outright. (Submitted photo: Swift County)

Rep. Tim Miller’s bid to reopen the Appleton prison would permit the state to spend up to $74.1 million to buy the former Prairie Correctional Facility outright. (Submitted photo: Swift County)

A House push to spend as much as $139 million to buy and upgrade the mothballed Appleton prison is steaming ahead, driven by elected officials hoping to buoy the economically depressed community in far western Minnesota.

But if the signals coming from the Senate and the governor’s office are any indication, it could prove a wasted effort.

House File 3106 comes from Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, whose District 17A includes Appleton. His latest bid to reopen the facility would permit the state to spend up to $74.1 million to buy the former Prairie Correctional Facility outright. The rest of could go toward “facility repairs and betterments” to bring the disused facility into regulatory compliance.

Last year, Miller made an unsuccessful pitch to either lease or purchase the facility from its present owners, CoreCivic.

Miller’s new bill was debated March 14 before the State Government Finance Committee. That panel approved it, 9-5, in a party-line vote. It was then forwarded to the Capital Investment Committee, chaired by Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, which has yet to have a hearing on it.

Miller testified for his own bill last week, as did Swift County Commissioner Gary Hendrickx. Both said the prison is in decent shape and could help the state mitigate overcrowding in its prisons.

Miller said that Corrections Department projections show that Minnesota’s prison population, already over its 9,504-inmate capacity, will continue growing in the years to come.

As of Jan. 1, 2018, Corrections reported it was managing 9,963 inmates. Some can’t be housed inside state prison facilities and are instead incarcerated in county jails. Commissioner Tom Roy said Monday the number of county cells leased is trending downward, with about 160 prisoners now housed in them. But that could reverse if the summer proves a busy time for law enforcement, he said.

By 2024, Corrections projected last year, Minnesota’s inmate population will reach 10,417. That’s fewer than the 11,292 inmates that had been projected before the drug sentencing changes of mid-2016. But it’s about 500 more prisoners than the state manages now and nearly 1,000 above current capacity.

“We have an asset which can resolve that,” Miller told committee members on March 14.

Sitting next to Miller, Hendrickx said 25 neighboring counties and towns support the prison’s reopening. He offered an economic pitch for its purchase.

“We are looking for the jobs that would be created, the good-paying jobs that are offered through the prison system and the Department of Corrections,” Hendrickx said. “We could have a long relationship for years to come.”

Opponents sound off

No one else testified for the bill on March 14, but about 10 speakers opposed it. Several of their arguments centered on moral, racial and social justice.

“If you purchase human cages, you are putting a face on the elusive prison-industrial complex,” said JaNae’ Bates, communications director for ISAIAH, a coalition of clergy, congregations and laypeople focused on racial and economic equity.

Sgt. Rick Nysen, a corrections officer at the St. Cloud prison worried that, being so far from population centers, Appleton might be at vulnerable should a riot to break out there. It might take hours for special operations response teams and mutual aid to arrive and provide backup, Nysen said.

Amy Levad, a University of St. Thomas professor who teaches criminal justice ethics, turned Hendrickx’s sunny economic optimism against him. She quoted a 2002 article published in the Economic Development Digest. It quoted him expressing disappointment at the time about the prison’s underwhelming economic stimulus.

“At first we thought if we built it, they would come,” Hendrickx says in the piece. “But what we have learned is that some of the prison employees come to work here but not to live here.”

“It is tragic that the citizen of Appleton and Swift County have forgotten this hard-learned lesson,” Devad said.

To be fair, Hendrickx was at least guardedly optimistic even then. In the original article he says, “We haven’t been able to capture the employees [as Appleton residents] yet. But everything is a process and we are learning as we go.”

A topic that got scant attention at the hearing was a January architectural summary commissioned by the Legislature last year. That 241-page report lists CoreCivic’s asking price at $74.1 million, though local tax assessments peg the value closer to $15 million.

Miller said another appraisal must be done before a purchase agreement gets struck. The final price cannot exceed that appraisal, he said.

The architect’s report also indicates that, should the prison reopen and reach its full capacity of 1,600 inmates, ongoing operations would cost $42.5 million a year.

The tenor of opponents’ testimony, combined with the relatively scant attention paid to the facility’s costs, prompted Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, to seek a re-referral of the bill to the Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee for further scrutiny.

That was turned down, as was a move by Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, on the House floor later the same day.

Just before the 45-minute State Government Finance debate came to a close, Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury, asked to hear from Roy, who was in the room.

The committee’s chair, Rep. Sarah Anderson, R- Plymouth, declined to bring him forward, noting that Roy had not asked to testify. She also suggested his testimony might not be on point.

“This bill is dealing with the commissioner of administration, not the Department of Corrections,” she said. “Administration is the one that receives the funding for building purchase and management.”

With that, bill was approved 9-5, albeit without recommendation, and sent over to Capital Investment.

After the March 14 meeting, Roy confirmed he had not wanted to testify. “I had no need to,” he said.

Roy said he was surprised that so little attention was paid to the January architectural report and its high cost estimates.

“That did not appear to be happening,” Roy said. “I am hopeful that the content of that study was thoroughly investigated by the members of the committee.”

Moot point?

Whether all this is much ado about nothing remains to be seen. But the signs outside the House don’t point to Miller’s success.

Gov. Mark Dayton expressed opposition to the purchase at a March 16 press conference during which he unveiled a supplemental budget for his final year in office.

It includes almost $7.9 million to cover operating costs for 335 additional prison beds beyond the number originally projected when DOC funds were appropriated for 2018-19. Dayton said much of the money would go toward leasing additional county jail space.

“It’s not a permanent solution,” he said, “but it’s one that we need to implement immediately because we don’t have the state prison space right now.”

Dayton, who leaves office in January, said he doesn’t want to saddle the next administration with a prison purchase. When asked if he would veto the bill if it passes, he replied, “I don’t support it.”

He may not be alone. Senate GOP sources, speaking on background, said the appetite in the upper chamber might be lacking for Appleton when other big-ticket items up are also for discussion this session.

Those include bills to fix to the buggy Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS), versions of which passed both chambers Monday. That would cost about $10 million. A potentially high-priced federal tax-conformity measure also looms.

Roy declined to predict the Appleton prison’s fate, but he allowed that it would not surprise him if the purchase doesn’t happen.

“I think with all of the financial challenges that the state is facing in many other areas,” Roy said, “an expenditure of this magnitude is going to be very difficult for members of both parties to adopt.”

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