Republican legislators say they will resurrect an effort to reopen and run a privately owned 1,600-bed prison in Swift County as a way to ease chronic overcrowding in Minnesota’s 10 state prisons.
A proposal to lease the facility from its owner, Nashville, Tenn.-based CoreCivic, previously known as Corrections Corporation of America, flopped last year following an onslaught of criticism from the public, worker unions and mostly DFL lawmakers pushing to reduce the prison population.
But proponents like Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, say legislators should reconsider this year, downplaying the many criticisms as over-politicized “fluff.”
About 500 of the state’s roughly 10,000 inmates are living outside of correctional facilities, which don’t have enough beds to hold them — with most going to county jails that lack basic programming designed to help reduce the likelihood of reoffending. By 2026, that overflow could nearly double to 1,130 — or about 10 percent of the state’s entire inmate population — according to forecast data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Projections show how decades of tough-on-crime policies have fueled a prisoner influx that far outpaces the state prisons’ capacity. As a result, Minnesota has had one of the fastest-growing incarceration rates in the country in recent years.
Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton said he would veto a bill to lease the private facility, instead favoring a plan to reduce the number of people who go to prison. Corrections top official, Commissioner Tom Roy — who could oversee the site if such a bill passed — denounced for-profit prisons as the “antithesis of America.”
In his new bonding proposal, Dayton is asking the Legislature for $53 million for corrections, some of which could help put a dent in overcrowding. Of that, $5 million would go toward a renovation at the Lino Lakes prison, which is projected to free up to 60 beds. Some $3.5 million more would help expand early release programs for qualifying inmates at facilities in Togo and Willow River.
Yet Dayton and other opponents have yet to offer a comprehensive alternative plan to significantly reduce the prison population.
Roy, who would only respond to questions via e-mail, said his department will continue to use county jails as de facto prisons — which cost the state about $9 million in contracts last year, according to department data. Admitting it’s “not a preferred prison alternative,” Roy said the jails will “satisfy our need into the foreseeable future.”
A crisis decades in the making
Overcrowding has been on the radar of prison officials and lawmakers for years.
Minnesota’s incarceration rate has been on a steep incline dating to the 1980s. Since 2000, new laws like a felony-level DWI charge and harsher penalties for sex offenders, stalkers and those possessing illegal guns or ammunition drove an unprecedented 50 percent increase in the imprisonment rate.
Minnesota’s newest prison opened in 2000.
In fall 2015, policymakers convened a task force designed to come up with solutions to overcrowding. Proposals mostly split along party lines and a $141 million pitch from the Corrections Department to expand its Rush City facility didn’t make it into Dayton’s 2016 bonding request.
At the end of the session, lawmakers passed a landmark drug-reform bill, which many hailed as a prison bed-saver.
The 600-plus-bed savings from those reforms make this year’s forecast much brighter than in 2016, yet data show it won’t be enough to reduce the population to meet capacity. The reforms will only slow growth in coming years — not stop or reverse it.
A second look
The Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton — a small farming town near the South Dakota-Minnesota border — has been vacant since 2010. Last year, legislators from the region introduced a bill that would direct the state to lease the prison.
It was met with harsh criticism, including from those who objected to the state doing business with the prison’s controversial owner, citing the for-profit prison company’s long history of lawsuits and allegations of unsafe and unsanitary conditions. In one particularly contentious moment, legislators in the House temporarily shut down a standing-room-only committee hearing due to disruptive protests.
Similar criticisms reverberated nationally last year. In August, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates dealt a major blow to the for-profit prison industry, announcing the Department of Justice would begin phasing out contracts with private prisons, calling these facilities less safe, less secure and lacking in rehabilitative resources.
“This is the first step in the process of reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons,” Yates wrote.
However, many speculate the federal government’s approach will shift significantly under President-elect Donald Trump, who has a record of advocating for the private prison industry.
Given the many criticisms, Cornish said he believes the only way to pass a bill in Minnesota would be to offer to buy the site — instead of just leasing it — and staff it with state correctional workers. Still, Cornish expects a difficult road ahead.
“They’ll come up with other horrendous statistics and reasons not to do it,” Cornish said. “But that’s just part of the game I guess.”
Asked if he would sign such a bill, Dayton said he could not comment without seeing the particulars. Dayton said he was skeptical about rushing into a deal and worried that the cost of the prison and potential upkeep could be steep.
Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, said he plans to introduce a bill soon, calling it a “no-brainer.” Lang said he’s still considering whether the proposal will be for buying or leasing the facility.