Minnesota is courting an influx of 1,600 Pennsylvania prison inmates, hoping to save jobs at Prairie Correctional Facility, a private prison in Appleton.

The prison, owned by Corrections Corporation of America, is reeling after losing most of its Minnesota inmates and all of the inmates it once housed from Washington state. A month ago, the prison told 120 employees -- more than half of the work force -- that they would lose their jobs Dec. 1.

"We're trying to help preserve those jobs any way we can," said David Crist, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC).

Crist said Monday that DOC is acting as Prairie's agent as part of an agreement among states to shift prisoners when overcrowding occurs. "States exchange these prisoners without money changing hands," he said.

Minnesota is one of six states -- Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Michigan and Virginia being the others -- interested in taking the prisoners. Pennsylvania seeks the transfers because of overcrowding in the state's 27 prisons.

Losing the Appleton prison, in west-central Minnesota near the South Dakota border, would devastate an economically depressed area, said Mayor Ron Ronning, who also works at the prison.

"If Prairie fails, I can say to you easily that 60 percent of this city's budget would go away," he said. "It's kind of a depressed time for us right now, and I hope something breaks loose for us."

The prison pays about $1.1 million to the city of about 2,000 residents each year for taxes and water usage. Housing 1,600 new inmates, he said, would be a "dream come true."

If Pennsylvania chose Minnesota for the transfer, none of the new male inmates would have mental health problems or serious medical and behavioral conditions.

"Pennsylvania isn't looking to dump a number of difficult-to-manage offenders outside of their system," Crist said.

They also would come at Pennsylvania's expense -- at no cost to Minnesota taxpayers, he said.

Housing a prisoner in DOC's eight adult prisons costs $89.24 a day, said spokeswoman Sarah Berg. By comparison, DOC pays $79.15 a day at Prairie, and which includes $14.21 for costs such as transportation, case management, major medical costs and other expenses, she said. However, Prairie won't accept prisoners requiring intense supervision or any who have serious chronic illnesses, and those types of inmates drive state costs up.

DOC expects to send more state inmates to Prairie once Minnesota's state-managed prisons fill up again, Crist said. DOC once housed 1,200 male prisoners there and still has about 230, but he said that number will dwindle soon.

Minnesota's prison population saw rapid growth in the first half of this decade during the methamphetamine boom and the creation of a felony DWI law, Berg said. Now, growth will continue but at a slower rate, she said.

Minnesota's reliance on the Appleton prison diminished this past year when the state opened four new housing units at the medium-security prison in Faribault and an additional 250 beds at the correctional center in Moose Lake.

Steve Owen, a spokesman for Corrections Corporation, said he couldn't speculate on Prairie's chances of getting the Pennsylvania prisoners. The company is trying to assess how state budgets are being affected and what that would mean for future contracts, he said.

Ronning credited Corrections Corporation with standing behind employees, even offering them jobs at other prisons. "They're really trying hard to keep us employed," he said.

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148 Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432