The latest proposal to put state prisoners in a west-central Minnesota facility appears more acceptable than when it was a privately run prison, but the plan has a long way to go before state lawmakers are ready to buy in. The plan would have the state lease, or potentially buy, the prison and staff it with state workers.
Swift County has hired a Twin Cities public relations firm to help sell the Legislature on leasing, or maybe even buying, the empty Prairie Correctional Facility at Appleton instead of borrowing more than $140 million to add 500 beds to an existing state prison in Rush City. The Appleton facility, owned by Corrections Corporation of America, has 1,600 beds.
“We feel it is a good opportunity,” Swift County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver said Friday before a prison population task force began talking about a prison overcrowding problem.
Pogge-Weaver heard some state lawmakers insist that the Appleton facility plan be examined, although no one said that was their preferred option. Others suggested that there are ways to send fewer people to prison, thus avoiding the need for more beds, and many said they remain open to all options, including Appleton.
Prairie Correctional supporters have suggested since the facility closed in 2010 that the state should return prisoners there, and Corrections Corporation run it. But Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said Friday that the only way the Democratic-controlled Senate and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton would consider using the facility is if the state owned or leased it and ran it with state-employed union workers.
“That has to be the case,” he said.
Still, Cornish said, he could accept double-bunking prisoners instead of reopening Prairie Correctional if that would ease overcrowding woes.
Task force member Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, asked Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy to report back with financial comparisons of leasing the Appleton prison and borrowing money for expanding Rush City’s prison.
Task force organizer Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, said the Appleton question will be vetted at the group’s Oct. 21 meeting.
Prairie Correctional held Minnesota and Washington state prisoners for years, before the states took back their inmates and it closed in 2010.
“I think there are some real questions about the effectiveness and safety of privately run prisons,” Latz said, but things would be different with the state running it.
Republicans, in particular, said there could be fiscal problems with expanding the Rush City facility.
Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, said that if the state borrows the expansion money through bond sales at 5 percent interest, the cost would be $25,000 per bed.
“We are talking about a huge amount of money,” he said.
Roy projected that by 2020, with no changes, the state will be short 1,202 prison beds.