At one time, the 1,640-bed Prairie Correctional Facility (PCF) in Appleton employed 350 people from 24 surrounding counties and generated an estimated $15.2 million annually in economic vitality for the region.
But when client states that were providing prisoners to the privately owned CoreCivic facility ended their contracts, it shut down in February 2010. Though it has been sitting empty for nine years now, it is ready and waiting to once again house prisoners. CoreCivic has kept a minimal maintenance staff in place and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in its upkeep.
Each year at the Minnesota Legislature the City of Appleton and Swift County have lobbied to get the state to use PCF to help with its prison over-crowding problem. It has also been supported in those efforts by its state representative and senator, most recently District 17A Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, and District 17 Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia.
So far, it has been a frustrating process with little support from past governors or legislators.
Now a powerful state legislator from the Twin Cities would like to ensure that PCF stays closed. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-46A Golden Valley, has introduced a bill along with state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL - St. Louis Park, to ban the state from using a privately owned prison for its inmates.
“Criminal justice is a core responsibility of government,” Winkler said. “Minnesotans deserve strong public safety, and private prison companies fail to deliver. House DFLers are working to make sure Minnesotans’ rights are protected ahead of corporate profits.”
“Considering the Trump administration’s decision to reverse the Justice Department’s plan to end the use of private prisons, time is of the essence to act here in Minnesota on the use of private prisons,” Latz said. “It’s been proven that private prisons do not focus on correctional officer and inmate well-being and safety,” he said. “Rather, they focus on protecting their own bottom lines.”
When profits are the motive for housing prisoners, they are willing to put the safety and security of staff at risk, they two say. Their hiring, training and staffing processes “create an environment unfit for all of those involved,” they claim. Government-run prisons offer the quality staff and programs that benefit staff and society, they say.
In support of their bills at the state Legislature, Winkler and Latz say that CoreCivic, the largest owner of privately-owned prisons in the country, has a proven record of operating facilities that have “terrible conditions” and that are “plagued with violence.” At CoreCivic’s Idaho prison an investigation found they had “relinquished control of…to gangs to save money on employee wages (leading to) high levels of sexual assault including assault by facility officials, and inmates left without medical care,” they say.
No such claims have ever been made about the operations of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton.
Furthermore, CoreCivic has offered to work with the state’s Department of Corrections leasing it PCF and allowing it use its own employees and implement the programs it has at other state prisons that aim to reduce the chances that a prisoner reoffends after being set free. There have even been discussions about the possible sale of the prison to the state. State House Rep. Miller has introduced bills that would facilitate the lease or purchase of the facility by the state’s Department of Corrections.
“With this bill, Rep. Winkler is proposing to make illegal a duly operated and licensed business in Minnesota,” Miller said. “Because he is from Golden Valley, which is right next door to Minneapolis, I am guessing he doesn’t understand the effect of a major employer being forced to close by law. He has thousands of businesses and organizations that are job providers in his community. Appleton has a few dozen.”
“He has no understanding of the proposals we have presented for the last four years which is for the state to own and operate the facility. If this bill is signed into law, it will devastate Appleton and the region. Governor Walz has called on our government to operate as ‘One Minnesota.’ Rep. Winkler is proving once again what this means is ‘One Minneapolis.’”
If the bills passed, they would destroy the property value of the Appleton CoreCivic prison. Their passage would take away all incentive for the company to continue to pay the minimum staff on hand that maintains the prison. There would be no more investments in upgrading it.
Of course, passage of the bills would put the state in a far better negotiating position to buy, or lease, the prison at a fraction of its value. However, you have to question the ethics of destroying a private businesses’ value by law, then negotiating to buy or lease it.
If the state isn’t interested in buying or leasing the prison, it would become an aging hulk sitting on the western Minnesota prairie, deteriorating over decades.
We support prison reform in Minnesota that leads to shorter sentencing for non-violent crimes and some drug offenses. We support sentencing reform that leads to more fair sentencing for crimes committed by non-whites. We support strong educational and counseling programs in prisons. We support professionally trained staffs.
We also support the state’s use of the Appleton prison to solve prison overcrowding and to reduce the number of prisoners that have to be held at county jails. In these county jails, prisoners do not get the very educational programs Latz and Winkler would argue are needed for prisoners. At many county jails, staff doesn’t receive the same level of support and training guards at state prisons get.
Democrats took a shellacking in rural Minnesota in the 2018 elections but won the state House based on strong seven-county metropolitan support. These bills proposed by Winkler and Latz ensure the DFL brand in rural Minnesota is one of metropolitan interests over rural needs.