PCF sees progress in 2017 Legislature

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Supporters of reopening the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton have worked doggedly at the Minnesota Legislature for the past several years in an effort to get the state to consider leasing or buying the vacant prison.

With the end up the 2017 legislative session they have won a minor, but important victory. Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill that included language that directs the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to use an independent contractor to conduct an assessment of the prison’s readiness for use. The study will also look at what improvements would be needed before state prisoners could be housed in the 1,640-bed facility with the report due by Jan. 15, 2018.

It has sat empty since owner CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, shut it down in February 2010. CoreCivic has kept a maintenance staff at the prison to keep it ready to use and has made significant investments in improvements over the past seven years.

When it was operating at full capacity, the prison employed up to 350 people from 24 surrounding counties and generated an estimated $15.2 million in economic vitality for the region.
District 17A Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, and District 17 Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, has sought to pass language that would have directed the state lease-to-own or purchase outright the prison from CoreCivic failed to get the needed support to pass the Legislature.

“While this does not necessarily mean that the Appleton prison will re-open as a state-run correctional facility, the report is a critical first step in providing legislators with the information they need to move forward in the future,” The Appleton Option, a group formed to push for the reopening of the prison, said.

The language approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor says that the “commissioner of corrections shall select an independent entity to conduct a thorough assessment of the existing correctional facility located in Appleton, Minnesota.  This assessment must determine the current physical state of the facility and the improvements to it, if any, that would be necessary for the department to open and operate it to house Minnesota offenders in a manner consistent with state correctional facilities. The assessment just estimate the costs involved in upgrading, leasing or purchasing, and operating the facility.”

Opponents of using the Appleton prison have argued that it is morally wrong to enrich a private company by housing prisoners in its facility, many of whom they believe have been wrongly put behind bars with harsh sentences simply because of their race. They also have argued that too many non-violent drug law offenders are being given jail time.

“Locking up people for profit has nothing to do with justice and has everything to do with making millions from human misery,” Rick Neyssen, a corrections sergeant at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud and president of Local 599 with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said at a March teleconference with state reporters.

Dayton has also opposed use of the private prison favoring sentencing reform that could ease the stress on the state’s overcrowded prisons. Commissioners of Corrections Tom Roy has also spoken out against using the Appleton prison, favoring upgrades to existing state prisons and sentencing reform.

Last year a key point in supporting reopening the Prairie Correctional Facility was that more than 500 state-sentenced prisoners were sitting in county jails because there was no room for them at state prisoners. Those prisoners weren’t getting the access to state prison programming aimed at ensuring when they were released they could enter the job market with new or enhanced skills, and that they wouldn’t reoffend.

However, Roy now says that the number of state prisoners in county jails has been reduced to 300....


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