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Appleton prison a win-win for state

Minnesota’s Legislature will face a crucial decision on the future of prison facilities in the state when it weighs whether to build a new 500-bed facility near a current prison in Rush City or take advantage of an empty 1,600-bed facility in Appleton.
Though it is more than five months before the state Legislature convenes, there is already a special Prison Population Task Force made up of legislators, state prison officials and law enforcement considering how to most cost-effectively meet the state’s need for more prison beds.
Swift County and the City of Appleton are actively putting their case before the state Legislature for using the Prairie Correctional Facility. To help it make its point with the legislators and the public, it has retained well-respected lobbying firm Goff Public of St. Paul.
We believe there are several key considerations the task force needs to weigh as it moves forward.
America’s prison population is nearing 2.4 million with more than 1.3 million of those inmates in state prisons. In Minnesota, there are about 15,700 inmates housed in jails and the population is growing despite crime going down in the state.  
Complicating the state’s handling of prisoners is that there are over 550 people being held in county jails who really should be housed in state prisons. This problem is only expected to get worse as the number of inmates projected to be held in county jails increases to between 900 and 1,000 over the next three years. Minnesota’s state prisons are already packed and can’t take on any additional prisoners.
The state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) wants many of these county prisoners housed in their own facilities where they can receive state educational programs as well as in facilities designed for prisoners sentenced to longer stays.
To accommodate those county-jailed prisoners and make room for the new prisoners who are sentenced to state prisons, the DOC is proposing the 500-bed Rush City expansion. While it was at first estimated that the expansion would cost $85 million, that cost has now ballooned to $141 million. As with all such projects, the price is likely to be even higher if it is built.
A wise investment of state money has to take into account where bonding dollars can best be spent as well as future trends in sentencing. Should we spend hundreds of millions on a new prison, or would that money be better spent on improving our roads, public transportation, schools, airports, and other public facilities?
To question the DOC’s proposed Rush City expansion you have to provide a common sense, cost-effective alternative to building a new prison. We just happen to have that alternative – the 1,600-bed Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton.
It is a modern prison that has been well maintained since closing down in February 2010 when owner Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) lost the contracts that once provided the inmates to fill its cells.
The Legislature has been reluctant to direct the DOC to use the facility not wanting to anger public employee unions by putting its prisoners in a facility staffed by non-union workers. CCA has indicated that it is willing to lease the facility, a move that would allow the state to provide union corrections employees. It would also allow the state to implement its educational programs within the facility.
State legislators also have to question whether the investment of $141 million in new prison facilities is wise in the rapidly changing national and state mindset on incarceration. Appalled at the level of incarceration in the U.S., as well as the ever-increasing financial burden it represents, leaders at the state and federal levels are taking significant steps to reduce the country’s prison population.
Last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to substantially lower recommended sentences for those convicted of drug-related felonies. Further, it made that action retroactive. That means that next month an estimated 6,000 inmates will be leaving prison early. As the new sentencing mandate is fully implemented, the number of people getting out of prison early could swell to 40,000 nationwide. Minnesota is only expected to see about 100 prisoners released in the first wave.
Both the U.S. House and Senate have taken up legislation on comprehensive sentencing guidelines that look to considerably ease the restrictions judges have when sentencing criminals. They are also looking at ways to redesign sentencing guidelines to further reduce incarceration rates for many crimes. States are getting into the act as well, reviewing their sentencing guidelines with an eye toward lowering prison populations.
There are private organizations pushing to expand the U.S. Sentencing Commission rules to a wider spectrum of the country’s prison population to reduce the number of people incarcerated for stays of 10 years or more.
Minnesota’s growing prison population has been the result of mandatory sentencing rules as it stepped up its war on drugs and drunk drivers. The meth boom of the early 2000s led to harsh sentences for users and makers of the drug. Penalties for domestic abuse and criminal sexual conduct also got tougher.
As the state and federal governments rethink sentencing guidelines with the aim of reducing prison populations, does it make sense for the state to invest hundreds of millions in a facility that could be sitting half empty a decade from now? Or, does it make more sense to lease a facility it could eventually walk away from if inmate numbers fell substantially?
On the other hand, if 500 beds cost $141 million today, what will another 500 cost several years down the line if the prison population continues to grow? It will be substantially more than $141 million. The Prairie Correctional facility could absorb the prisoners the state would need to house if the population continues to grow providing a huge investment savings to taxpayers. It will also mean a much more wise use of state monies for other projects. It is a win-win scenario for the state.
When the Prison Population Task Force meets Oct. 21 to consider options for building or leasing the Prairie Correctional Facility, it should consider how it addresses both the scenario of a falling prison population as well as the potential for growth several times what a 500-bed expansion at Rush City accommodates.
The state’s use of the Prairie Correctional Facility would also give western Minnesota a badly needed economic boost. Appleton’s prison once provided 365 jobs in west central Minnesota –jobs that can help the economies of small towns that have been struggling with population loss as well as significant down turn in the farm economy.

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