On Friday, the town of Appleton, Minn., got the news many residents have dreaded: Prairie Correctional Facility will close, putting up to 125 employees out of work.
The private prison will shut down Feb. 1 because of low inmate numbers, according to the company that owns and runs the facility.
The news comes after a tough year for the prison, which has lost most of its Minnesota inmates and all of the inmates it once housed from Washington state. Built for more than 1,600, the facility currently holds 214 inmates, all from Minnesota.
Its closure will hit hard in the west-central Minnesota community of 2,700, said Mayor Ron Ronning, who also works at the prison. "We're having our Christmas party tonight, which is going to be 'bah-humbug' a little bit," he said Friday evening. Still, prison workers handled the news fairly well. "Everybody was pretty good about it," he said, adding that "when you hear the word 'close,' it kind of sticks in your craw a little bit."
The prison supports about 60 percent of the city's budget, paying Appleton about $1.1 million a year in taxes and water bills, the mayor said. "The community is going to suffer quite a bit," he said.
The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which owns the prison, said in a statement that it hopes to reopen the Appleton facility by partnering with the federal government or a state government with an overcrowded prison system.
For now, "It is our hope that a large number of the Prairie staff will consider relocating to one of CCA's other 64 correctional facilities during this indefinite closure," the statement said.
The state will seek beds in county jails for Prairie's remaining inmates, said David Crist, deputy commissioner of the facilities division at the Minnesota Department of Corrections. The prisoners, all men, tend to have good conduct records and don't need intensive programs such as sex-offender treatment, he said.
The medium-security prison housed 1,200 Minnesota inmates as recently as two years ago, but that figure has dropped as the state's prison population has flattened out and more beds have been added to state facilities.
"We just have less of a need for rental beds," Crist said. Minnesota had already planned on reducing its inmate numbers at Prairie to about 100, he said, adding that the state expects to need more room again as soon as 2012.
"Hopefully, by then Prairie will have found another contract, and they will reopen, and they will be available to us," he said.
Minnesota has sponsored a bid by the Appleton prison to relieve crowding in Pennsylvania prisons by taking up to 1,600 of that state's inmates, but Crist said Friday that Minnesota hasn't heard back about the proposal.
The prison's closure is going to be tough on young families who have bought homes in the area, as well as businesses from 30 miles around, Ronning said.
"I'll stick it out here because I'm very optimistic that they'll find a contract come this summer," the mayor said. The Corrections Corporation of America has invested millions in upgrades at the prison in the past few years, he said. "They're really making an effort to get this place filled again."
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016