Appleton Prison Should Be The Smart Choice

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By Reed Anfinson

Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Minnesota faces a serious prison overcrowding problem. No one argues that point. It is how that problem should be addressed that is at the root of deep emotional stands on the issue. There are three basic solutions under discussion: sentencing reform, creating more prison beds, or the combination of the two. Tangled within those three solutions are passionate feelings on sentencing fairness, racial inequity in sentencing, and the difference between being tough on crime and compassionate to our fellow human beings who have violated the law.

Swift County, the City of Appleton, and much of west central Minnesota finds itself in the middle of that debate through its lobbying for the reopening of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton. The 1,600-bed privately owned prison has sat empty since February 2010. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has offered to lease the Appleton prison to the state for between $6 and $8 million a year whether there are 500 or 1,600 prisoners in the facility.

It is currently estimated that the state’s prison population will expand by another 650 inmates by 2022. But state prisons are already overflowing forcing the Department of Corrections to place between 500 and 550 of its prisoners in county jails. Add the two numbers together and seven years from now Minnesota could have between 1,150 to 1,200 prisoners more than it has beds.

Prisoners sitting in county jails for long-term stays, up to a year, argue that such incarceration is similar to serving hard time. In county jails they lack the state educational and mental health programs offered in state prisons as well as the recreation facilities and social or religious groups they would otherwise have.

It is estimated that reforming Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines could free 700 prison beds. Even if these numbers are realized through reform, the state will still have nearly 500 more prisoners than it has room for without new construction or leasing space by the year 2022. Further, no change in the current laws is likely to lead to 700 prisoners walking out of their cells the next day. Reform will likely be a gradual process – meaning there could be a need for significantly more than 500 beds in the coming years.

State Commissioner of Corrections Tom Roy has proposed adding 500 beds to the Rush City facility at the cost of $141 million. Republicans who control the Minnesota House are firmly behind reopening the Appleton prison before spending more money on new prison space. Democrats who control the state Senate are looking to sentencing reform, as is Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, to help solve the crowding problem.

Employee unions have taken a hard stand against the use of the Appleton prison. Their initial argument was that the state should have nothing to do with a company that employs non-union employees and one with a poor reputation in corrections. That argument is taken off the table with CCA’s offer to lease the facility and let the state use its own employees as well as its own programs. Yet, the unions persist in their opposition. 

 

As the state rethinks sentencing guidelines with the aim of reducing prison populations, does it make sense for Minnesota to invest hundreds of millions in a facility that could be sitting empty a decade from now? Or, does it make more sense to lease a facility it could eventually walk away from if inmate numbers fall substantially? Does it make more sense to invest those millions in our failing infrastructure – building and repairing roads, bridges, schools, and airports - or on prison beds that may not be needed?

 

Setting the record straight

“… Opening the prison is no real solution to the economic problems of Appleton residents,” Kathleen Cole, an assistant professor of political science in the Department of Social Science at Metropolitan State University recently wrote in a piece published by MinnPost. “Rural communities are declining throughout the state. Jobs are increasingly located in cities, where diverse economies do a better job of sustaining employment rates for residents. Pinning all of their economic hopes on one or two industries (i.e., prisons and farming) is not a long-term solution.”

In that one paragraph, Cole flippantly writes off rural Minnesota as a meaningful contributor to the state’s economy. We might as well pack up and move to the Twin Cities. What she doesn’t understand is that we are far more diverse than she simplistically concludes.

“Rural counties with prisons do not have lower unemployment rates,” Cole quotes Marie Gottschalk, an expert on prisons and politics in the United States.  “Many of the new jobs created by the prison go to people outside the county where the prison is built. Prisons also fail to generate significant linkages to the local economy, because local businesses are often unable to provide the goods and services needed to operate penal facilities.”

 “It is extremely unlikely that the residents of Appleton would get the kind of long-term economic benefits from reopening the prison that they envision,” Cole says, an assumption apparently based on Gottschalk’s research. 

This comment ignores the fact that we don’t need to build our economic benefit argument based on academic research, we can build it on the local history gained from the years the prison was open – we know from experience the profound and beneficial economic impact it had on the region.

We would like to see the data that shows 350 jobs for western Minnesota have a meaningless impact on the local economies of the many small towns from which the employees come. That a $13 to $15 million payroll has a meaningless impact for the businesses of those communities. That all those employees coming in and out of Appleton don’t have a fiscal impact on the community. That employees looking to live in the Appleton area, closer to where they work, don’t buy homes, shop at the local grocery store, buy gas, use municipal services and spend their paychecks in dozens of other ways that cause the cash to flow through the rural economy. Each child that moves into the area brings $7,000 in state public school funding to the local district. Is that benefit an illusion?

Here is where Cole’s arguments go from misguided and speculative to stunningly uninformed.

“Since that’s the case, the question must be asked: Who stands to benefit from reopening the CCA-owned prison? Certainly not the people of Appleton. And, certainly not the communities from whom the incarcerated are taken.”

Yes, CCA benefits. It would earn $6 to $8 million from the annual lease. We get 350 jobs and a $13 to $15 million payroll. That seems like a fairly good deal for the people of western Minnesota if my math is any good.

“The push to reopen the Appleton prison is based in naked self-interest on the behalf of CCA and law-and-order Republicans in the House of Representatives,” Cole continues.

To insinuate that we are no more than puppets, or dupes, for CCA is a charge based on a profound, willing ignorance of what lies behind our efforts, and insulting to the intelligence and motivations of those who are working in good faith to see the prison reopened.

If helping rural Minnesota can tip the scales in favor of reopening PCF, after the options of building new facilities and sentencing guideline reform are taken into account, then yes, it has a legitimate place in the decision-making process. But no one is asking for a handout.

If sentencing guidelines changes lead to significant reduction in the number of people behind bars in Minnesota today and into the future, freeing beds in state prisons for those housed in county jails, the need for Appleton’s prison goes away. If it can be shown that building new facilities is a more cost effective solution than leasing PCF, then let the financial numbers speak for themselves and make the choice that is most wise for the taxpayers of Minnesota.

But don’t simply write off Appleton and rural Minnesota when prison overcrowding remains a reality and it is the best financial option for Minnesota’s taxpayers.

 

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