A longtime dispute over lack of fence around state women's prison in Shakopee heats up, but a tight budget may settle issue.
There have been 18 "documented intrusions" onto the grounds of the state women's prison in Shakopee over the past five years -- and likely many more have gone undetected.
If that sounds mighty sieve-like for a prison, relax: A fair number were just kids cutting through the grounds.
Minnesota has a prison whose outer walls never quite got built.
And although the new political leadership in Shakopee wants to change that, the Legislature's decision not to set aside money for a full fence around the facility in this year's construction bill suggests that it's unlikely to happen soon.
And that has warden Tracy Beltz simmering.
"We are trying to educate the community on who we house here," she said. "We are the only female facility in the state, so we have all levels of custody, and that means going from theft right up to murder and sex offenses. We are concerned about both keeping them in and others -- who could pose a danger to our offenders -- out."
A certain number of the neighbors -- including no less a figure than a former county sheriff, who now represents the city on the County Board -- doubt that the prison poses a danger.
Some say, in fact, that they were promised it wouldn't be enclosed by a fence, lest a quiet small-town residential area start feeling as though Alcatraz had just materialized in its midst. The place now has the look of a small college.
Provided the money comes through, the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton is stressing that whatever barrier arises will positively drip with class. It will look like the enclosure at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, or perhaps an upscale suburban enclave, state corrections officials say.
"You see gated communities that have the types of fences around them that we're talking about building," said John Schadl, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. "We respect the neighbors' concerns that it not be an eyesore in their community."
But the legislator representing Shakopee is lukewarm.
"Personally I support it [a fence]," said Republican Rep. Mike Beard, "but I won't fall on my sword for it. The administration made its case and did a good job, but our caucus wants to keep the bill at less than $500 million. A lot of stuff hit the cutting room floor and this was one of them."
Divisive issue for decades
It's one of the longer-running stories in Twin Cities suburbia. Prison officials were able to dig out a 1978 clipping from the local weekly under the headline, "Council requests fence around corrections unit."
"There was talk then of chain-link razor wire," said associate warden Calvin Miller, "and that was the old facility. The original plans for the new one, dating to the '80s, did show it partly fenced off, and we're not sure what happened except that it was very tight budget times with the governor quoted as saying 'the state's broke,' and it was probably, like, 'if we can save $1 million on this project ...' "
Today it's a $5 million item, and budgets are still tight. The City Council in Shakopee was divided on the issue even in the '70s, and the city's lack of enthusiasm since is thought to have been a factor in keeping the place unfenced.
The newly elected mayor, Brad Tabke, quickly learned that the prison folks were not happy -- and nor, once he heard their spiel, was he.
"I'd never been through there before," he said, "and was fascinated by what they do. The fact there is no fence is mind-boggling. It makes no sense to me. ... they gave me a list of attempted escapes and all they have to go over is a hedge."
To frame the issue purely as one for Shakopee to decide is to miss the point, the warden said.
"I did hear a neighbor at a public meeting talk at length about what her daughter suffered when an escapee went to their home, the trauma her daughter struggles with from that shock factor," she said. "But it's all of Minnesota that we're concerned about. God knows where they go or what they do. They're not just going next door."
Since 1995, there have been seven escapes, she said, and "fifteen others who planned to but because staff discovered something, the plan was thwarted. As recently as January, we had three offenders in our segregation unit who talked of escaping but the plan was thwarted. We've had six offenders housed out of state for the same reason, because we can't contain them here."
At what cost?
"We have an interstate compact so it doesn't cost us, per se, but typically you then take one of theirs, and no one will send an offender here with no fence. Often you therefore take a male back" -- and if the other state wants to outsource the guy means he is liable to be a disciplinary problem or other management issue.
Rep. Beard agrees the issues are not frivolous at all. "And it's not dead yet. It'll get built someday. Probably not this year, but I've been surprised before."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285