The outlook is bleak for a proposal to reopen the Prairie Correctional Facility, a private prison in Minnesota’s Swift County.
Over the past month, a protest temporarily shut down a legislative hearing on the bill, the state’s top prison commissioner called it “the antithesis of America” and Gov. Mark Dayton vowed to veto if it passed. Last Friday, the bill missed a critical deadline in the state Senate, making even sponsor Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, cautiously pessimistic that it would succeed this year.
“I could be wrong,” added Koenen. “Things change fast here.”
When Koenen introduced the bill, which would direct the state to lease and operate the private facility, supporters marketed it as common-sense arithmetic: Minnesota’s prisons are bloated beyond capacity, leading the Department of Corrections to house hundreds of overflow inmates in county jails. At the same time, there’s a 1,600-bed facility sitting vacant in Appleton, and backers said the bill would buoy a depressed economy in the state’s west-central region.
But the political debate has proved much more complicated. For critics in the Legislature and a vocal coalition of religious and civil rights groups, reopening Prairie Correctional has brought home long-standing frustrations with the U.S. criminal justice system: the rise of mass incarceration, the use of for-profit prisons and the disparate imprisonment of people of color.
These issues reach beyond the Appleton bill and, in recent months, Minnesota has become a melting pot of justice reform issues being debated across the nation, said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel for the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, who is writing a book on private prisons.
It’s indisputable that Minnesota’s prisons are overcrowded. But the difficult conversations over where to go next — reopening the Appleton prison or, on the flip side of the debate, reforming sentencing laws and reducing the prison population — mark a significant moment for the state, said Eisen. “What’s happening in Minnesota is reflective on so many levels of the larger conversation that the country is having on criminal justice reform,” she said.
Skepticism over CCA
Much of the criticism over the proposal has been directed toward the facility’s owner, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
Founded in 1983, CCA is the largest private prison company in the U.S., housing more than 70,000 inmates across the country, according to the company’s website. CCA purchased Prairie Correctional in the mid-1990s and operated it until 2010, when it closed due to lack of inmate contracts. CCA still employs a skeleton staff for maintenance, but the facility otherwise has been vacant for six years.
Last year, religious group ISAIAH began protesting efforts to reopen Prairie Correctional, criticizing CCA’s record and the private-prison model for profiting off incarceration. ISAIAH is now among at least 13 organizations opposing the Appleton proposal. The opposition also includes the union representing Minnesota correctional officers, which says it doesn’t want CCA to get a foothold that could lead to the company running the prison under future political leadership.
“Reopening Appleton benefits only two groups — CCA and politicians whose ‘tough-on-crime’ laws caused overcrowding in the first place,” said Jennifer Munt, spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5.
Critics like Munt point to a history of lawsuits and negative news articles alleging violence, understaffing and unsanitary conditions as evidence that Minnesota shouldn’t be doing business with the company.
In an interview in Appleton in February, CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns emphasized that CCA would lease the facility to the state and that the company would act as a landlord.
“Other than maintaining the facility, CCA would have no input,” said Burns. “The state would manage the facility as if it were its own, except the state wouldn’t incur the costs associated with building a new facility, the costs associated with maintenance and upkeep.”
That nuance hasn’t satisfied critics. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, has been among the proposal’s staunch opponents at the State Capitol. He said there’s “no such thing as a short-term lease” for this facility, given the investment the state would have to make in staffing and relocating prisoners. “It would be like the equivalent of a military base closing,” Latz said. “It would be impossible.”
Adding vs. Subtracting
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Latz has played a key role in keeping the Appleton bill from advancing this year.
Latz said he sympathizes with Appleton residents who want to see the prison reopen as a job creator, but he doesn’t believe economic needs should drive incarceration policy.
“That would be immoral,” he said. “The prospect of creating incentives for putting more people in jail for the purpose of enhancing the economic well-being of a particular region is completely backward.”
Instead, Latz and others — including Dayton — said Minnesota should be focusing on ways to reduce its prison population. One plan to do so is already in the works. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, an independent state agency that sets recommendations for judges, recently passed an overhaul to sentences for drug offenders. Legislators have proposed amendments to reforms, and some House Republicans want to block it. But if the Legislature doesn’t act, the new guidelines will go into effect in August.
Koenen said he’s skeptical that these reforms alone would be enough. Over the next 10 years, the new guidelines would save 560 beds, according to commission data. But Corrections Department projections put the state’s inmate population at 1,300 over capacity by 2022.
“Even if [the reforms] take place, I’m not convinced it will solve the problem,” said Koenen.
Another critical voice has emerged from civil rights organizations. In March, Black Lives Matter and other groups packed a House hearing to protest the bill, some comparing it to slavery because black people face disproportionate incarceration rates relative to the state’s racial makeup.
Two weeks ago, protesters spoke out against the Appleton plan in the streets of Minneapolis after prosecutors announced they wouldn’t charge two police officers who shot and killed Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man, in north Minneapolis. Last week, a group of black leaders introduced a legislative agenda that included opposition to Appleton and support for reducing the population through sentencing reforms.
“A lot of the laws we have now are disproportionally affecting low-income folks — black folks in particular,” said Wintana Melekin, spokeswoman for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, one of the groups opposing the Appleton bill. “It’s really an attack on the poor, and we need to re-evaluate that.”
Not dead yet
Though the bill appears stagnant, it’s still possible for it to be revived.
It’s also likely that legislators will push the bill in future sessions with tweaks to help quell opposition. One alternative would be for the state to outright purchase the facility, taking CCA out of the equation entirely.
“That would have a lot more acceptance in the Senate,” Koenen said. “Having said that, even if that bill were introduced right now, I’m not sure we’re there yet.”