Republicans who want the state to start using a privately owned prison in western Minnesota pitched it Tuesday morning as a common-sense solution for overcrowding in state-owned correctional facilities.
A proposal under consideration at the Legislature would direct the state to buy or lease Prairie Correctional Facility, a 1,600-bed prison in Appleton, Minn., that’s been sitting empty since losing contracts in 2010. Republican chief sponsor Rep. Tim Miller, whose district includes Appleton, emphasized the potential to house hundreds of inmates currently incarcerated in county jails poorly equipped to deal with them long term.
In introducing the bill, Miller attempted to head off criticism by making clear the state would operate the facility, and that it would be staffed by unionized correctional workers — both issues of contention when a similar bill came up last year.
“We need a solution to prison overcrowding now, and I believe utilizing the Appleton facility is a no-brainer,” Miller said.
Civil rights groups strongly oppose reopening the Appleton facility, joined by corrections union members and a coalition of faith-based organizations that says the state shouldn’t do business with the prison’s owner, CoreCivic, or the for-profit prison industry as a whole.
Many showed up at a House Public Safety Committee hearing Tuesday to speak out against the bill.
Among them was Rick Neyssen, a local AFSCME representative and sergeant at Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud, who warned legislators to “beware of the bait and switch” — expressing suspicion that a lease this year could lead to a price hike or full-on CoreCivic takeover down the road.
“Doing business with CoreCivic is like doing business with the devil,” Neyssen said. “The company cuts corners to make a buck and they profit from human misery.”
Representatives of CoreCivic have previously said that a lease or purchase option would take the company out of the equation in favor of the state, arguing it’s not even correct to refer to it as a private prison model.
The current language does not specify whether the state would buy or lease the facility, nor does it stipulate any terms of a potential lease.
Critics also argued the bill represents skewed priorities. Minnesota should focus on cutting its prison population, they said, not finding more space to let it flourish.
Yet measures to reduce prison ranks have generated little enthusiasm among state legislative leadership or in President Donald Trump’s administration. Last year, Minnesota lawmakers did pass a major drug reform bill. But even accounting for that long-term effect, the state’s prison overcrowding problem is projected to hit 1,130 by 2026 — meaning about 10 percent of the inmate population won’t fit inside existing facilities — according to data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also strongly signaled that governments need to revert to tough-on-crime policies, and he made quick work of reversing an Obama-era memo to phase out private prisons in the federal system.
Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy, whose department would oversee any new facility, countered Tuesday that opening a new prison isn’t the only way to address overcrowding. He pointed to last year’s drug-sentencing reform and the potential to expand early-release programs as more cost-effective examples.
Beyond the initial cost of reopening the prison, Roy warned that a prison of this size would cost $30 million to $40 million in annual operating costs.
“That is no insignificant amount,” he said.
The committee held over Miller’s bill for possible inclusion in a broader package of public safety proposals. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said he would unveil the broader bill on Thursday.
Cornish, the Public Safety committee chairman, is a cosponsor of Miller’s bill, and has been a strong supporter of the Appleton option. He urged lawmakers on Tuesday to get into business with CoreCivic before the federal government snatches up the facility.
If a bill does pass the Legislature, it’s unclear if Gov. Mark Dayton would sign it. Dayton said last year he would veto a similar measure. In an e-mailed statement Tuesday, he deferred to Roy’s position that the measure is not needed and too costly.