Committee passes prison bill; governor promises veto

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Legislators tour the Prairie Correctional Facility in November.

Early last Tuesday morning a bus wove its way through western Minnesota picking up supporters of the reopening of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton with state prisoners. It then headed for a committee hearing at the state Capitol in St. Paul.

What followed was a startling education in the highly emotional and combative politics of sentencing laws, race and prison use in Minnesota.

As the bus rolled up to the Transportation Building in the state Capitol complex, it was met by a group running up to it with coffee and donuts, but also bearing banners saying, “Don’t believe the lies of CCA! You’re better than that Appleton!” CCA stands for Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private owner of prison space, including Appleton’s 1,600-bed facility.

“That is how our day started,” Swift County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver said last Friday.  From there, the attempt of the group from multiple communities and counties in west Central Minnesota to get its message heard was drowned out by the raucous, often belligerent, opposition gathered in the hearing meeting room in the State Office Building.

After protesters of the prison continually shouted at the committee, making it impossible for supporters of the Appleton prison to be heard by members, Rep. Tony Cornish, Republican-Vernon Center, had the room cleared, closing the hearing for nearly an hour. When it reconvened, no more Appleton prison supporters were heard; rather the opposition sat at the table without interruption.

Despite the vociferous opposition of protesters, the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, which has a majority of Republicans on it, passed the bill. It now goes on to the House Ways and Means Committee.

House File 3223 would make two changes to the current law. It would allow the inclusion of non-publically owned facilities among those to which the state’s commissioner of corrections can send prisoners in state custody.

Further, it adds a new paragraph to the law saying, “The commissioner, in order to address bed capacity shortfalls, shall enter into a contract to lease and operate an existing prison facility with a capacity of at least 1,500 beds located in Appleton, Minnesota.”

The bill is co-sponsored by more than 20 members of the Republican-controlled state House including Republican Rep. Kurt Daudt, the Speaker of the House, and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish. Cornish chairs the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee. It is also supported by District 17A Rep. Tim Miller, of Clara City.

However, it faces opposition in the Democratic-controlled state Senate and from Gov. Mark Dayton. They have been considering ways of reducing the state’s growing prison population rather than looking at ways to house even more prisoners.

Minnesota’s prisons are overcrowded today with more than 500 inmates who should be in state cells instead housed in county jails. Those sitting in county jails don’t have access to state educational and mental health programs, recreation facilities, social or church groups, or the library facilities available in a state prison. Some prisoners say serving extended time in a county jail is the equivalent of “hard time” and should get them reduced sentences.

Appleton’s 1,600-bed Prairie Correctional Facility has sat empty since February 2010 with owner Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) keeping a minimal staff on hand to do maintenance and keep the facility ready to open should the state call.

CCA has said it would be willing to lease the prison for between $6 and $8 million a year whether the state places 500 or 1,600 prisoners in it. CCA has offered to provide maintenance for the prison.

When it was at its peak occupancy back in 2007, the Appleton prison employed 350 people from 24 surrounding communities generating an estimated $15.2 million in payroll.


Testimony and protest

Republican Rep. Miller, who represents the Appleton area, stressed that the prison would be leased and operated by the state. But opponents note it would still be owned by Corrections Corporation of America, which ran the facility before it closed. The panel rejected a Democrat-led attempt to ban the state from using privately owned prisons.

“I recognize that there’s been some concern about the company that owns this facility, which is precisely why we have drafted the bill in this way,” said Miller, the bill’s sponsor. “The company would have no involvement in the daily operations, staffing or inmate care at the facility. It would be entirely run by the DOC, just like any other prison facility in the state.”

Miller and other advocates from the Appleton region argued that re-opening the facility would create up to 350 jobs in a financially struggling community. They also say the prison would offer counseling and other programs designed to reduce recidivism that aren’t available in county jails.

“We are not asking the state to incarcerate more people. We are asking you to house them in an environment that will provide the services they need,” said Vicki Oakes of the Ortonville Economic Development Authority

“We have an asset and the state has a problem and we think they match up pretty well together,” Swift County Rural Development Authority Executive Director Jennifer Frost told the committee.

Oakes, Frost, Miller and other people who testified during the hearing were repeatedly cut short by protesters who interrupted from the crowd, saying the re-opening of the Appleton prison would be an immoral outrage and a “form of slavery.”

The 10-7 party-line vote in the House committee came over objections from protesters who argued that black residents would be inordinately housed there and urged lawmakers to instead examine how to reduce the number of Minnesota inmates.

“I don’t understand why we think it’s OK to build revenue off of black and brown bodies,” said Toya Woodland, a Roseville minister who helped lead protesters’ disruptions.

“You cannot put my family in jail to save 330 Caucasians in Appleton,” a black woman shouted at the hearing. “This is abuse.”

The fight reflects the wide political divide - exacerbated by election-year pressures - over how to handle Minnesota’s overcrowded prisons.

DFL lawmakers have pushed to expand a looming set of reductions to major drug sentences that could free up hundreds of prison beds in the next decade. But Republicans, who control the House, have vowed to block them. Dayton has suggested earmarking millions of dollars to expand existing prisons rather than re-open Appleton’s facility or build new ones.

Legislators should be talking about closing prisons, not opening more, said the Rev. Brian Herron of the faith-based coalition group ISAIAH. It was people from ISAIAH who ran to meet the bus full of western Minnesota supporters of the Appleton prison.

“There’s no way you’re going to open something and not find a way to fill it,” he told lawmakers. “It’s going to be filled with black and brown bodies. We already know that.”

State Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill with a statewide ban on private prisons. Hilstrom said the state had good reasons for ending its relationship with CCA six years ago. She said the company cherry-picked prisoners and failed to provide state-required services.

“It was Gov. Pawlenty in 2010 who stopped renting beds,” Hilstrom said. “So, this isn’t a Democratic or a Republican issue. This is about doing right for the state of Minnesota.”


Veto promised; purchase a possibility

Gov. Mark Dayton says he’d veto a bill this year to re-open a private prison in western Minnesota.

The Democratic governor laid out his opposition at a news conference last Wednesday to using the Appleton facility to ease prison overcrowding.

Dayton says leasing the building from the corporate owner is not an option and buying it would be too expensive. He's suggested expanding existing facilities and some sentencing changes to get a better handle on the state's growing prison population.

But Dayton said buying the prison for an estimated $100 million or more may be a long-term option if needed.


Incarceration rate per 100,000 people 2014


Lowest 5 states                                  Number

Maine                                               153

Rhode Island                                      178

Massachusetts                                     188

Minnesota                                          194

North Dakota                                      214


U.S. average                                       471


Top 5 states                                      Number

Louisiana                                           816

Oklahoma                                          700

Alabama                                            633

Arkansas                                            599

Mississippi                                        597


Editor’s note: Some of the information for this story was provided by the Associated Press.

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