Appleton, Minn. – Surrounded by barbed-wire and electric fences, Prairie Correctional Facility sits on the southern edge of this quiet farming community. With capacity to house 1,660 inmates — more than the entire population of Appleton — it ranks among Minnesota's largest prisons.

"It's like a small city," Daren Swenson, the former warden at this privately owned facility, said as he walked its gray corridors on a recent February afternoon pointing to amenities like a barber shop, classrooms and a small chapel that has hosted everything from Catholic mass to Wiccan prayer services.

Yet Prairie Correctional lacks one critical element for it to truly be called a prison: inmates.

It hasn't held a prisoner since February 2010. Now, the only people to roam the concrete barracks are security and maintenance staff who, among other duties, spend each week flushing the building's more than 800 toilets so the pipes don't freeze.

But some Minnesota politicians believe it's time for Prairie Correctional to make a comeback. As the legislative session approaches, a group of lawmakers plans to push a bill requiring the state to lease and operate the facility, which they say would solve the state's prison overcrowding crisis.

The proposal will face hard-line opposition in a philosophical debate over what type of corrections system Minnesota wants to operate moving into the future. Over the past 25 years, the state has backed itself into a corner by creating more laws that have translated into a need for thousands more prison beds, while at the same time not building enough to keep up with demand. Legislators are now split on whether to create more space or find ways to reduce the still-rising population. Some believe for-profit prisons like Prairie Correctional should be outright banned.

But the rise and fall — and potential rise again — of Prairie Correctional is also the story of an economically fragile region that has risen and fallen with it. Here in Swift County, 150 miles from the State Capitol, conversations about prison politics come distant second to concerns over the region's unemployment, empty classrooms and vacant houses. Residents see the prison as a permanent job creator to sustain them through lean farming years — and a lifeline to save the community from stagnation.

"It needs to come back," said Julie Steuck, co-owner of JJ's, a local diner on Appleton's main drag. "This town was alive back then."

An unlikely solution

In the 1980s, Swift County was heading toward economic depression. The rural region historically survived on farming, but record-high interest rates and crop surpluses brought devastation to the Midwest agriculture industry, and from 1975 to 1985 the percent of income from farming in Swift County dropped from 30 percent to 7 percent.

Unemployment led to out-migration, and local government officials worried for the region's future. That's how they came up with the idea for a prison.

Appleton opened Prairie Correctional in the early 1990s, originally designed to hold 500 inmates. A few years later, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) — now the largest for-profit prison company in the country — purchased the facility and expanded it to the mammoth it is today.

At its peak, the prison employed 350 people from across western Minnesota, with a total payroll of about $13 million, according to CCA data. The economic boon went beyond job creation. The prison paid $600,000 a year in utilities and hundreds of thousands more in property taxes.

It was enough to temporarily halt the population decline, and for the first time in decades the number of Swift County residents actually grew between 1990 and 2000.

Guy Block was among those who moved to Swift County to work for the prison. Block grew up in Montana and applied to be a correctional officer with the intention of staying six months, until he could transfer to another CCA-owned facility opening closer to home. Then he fell in love with his job and a nurse who worked there.

"There was barely a house to rent in Appleton at the time," Block recalled. "It went from that to what you see now — you have dilapidated houses around town."

By 2009, economics once again caught up with Swift County. When the Great Recession hit, states cut prison spending, and Prairie Correctional lost its contracts. It closed in early 2010.

"I didn't see it coming," said Jackie Sigdahl, a former human resources manager at Prairie Correctional. "You just think, 'a prison's not going to close.' And I really believed that."

A second exodus

With no inmates, the value of the facility plummeted, and property taxes went up 30 percent for Appleton residents the next year, said city clerk and treasurer Roman Fidler. That $600,000 in utility money all but disappeared.

Some employees lingered, hoping the closure would be temporary. But when bleak reality set in, another exodus began.

Since the closure, CCA has continued to keep up with maintenance and state licensure, hoping to pick up new contracts. In the meantime, local government officials have exhaustively pondered other uses for the prison. Research into precedents has turned up two findings: Alcatraz — the historic prison-turned-tourist destination — and the 1980 Olympic Village in Lake Placid, N.Y., which was flipped into a federal prison in the '90s.

But Prairie Correctional isn't exactly Alcatraz, and "we're probably not going to be hosting Olympics here," said Jennifer Frost, executive director of Swift County Rural Development Authority.

Dogged by controversy

Not everyone was sad to see the prison go. Criticism over Prairie Correctional dates back as far as the prison itself.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, has been an outspoken critic of the Appleton facility, and has repeatedly introduced bills calling for a ban on state contracts with private prisons. She said CCA has consistently failed to provide adequate treatment and other resources for prisoners in Minnesota.

"You're paying for a very expensive system, and you're not getting what you pay for," she said, announcing plans to reintroduce the bill this year.

The labor union that represents correctional workers shares Hilstrom's critique of CCA, and opposes any bill that would mean doing business with the company.

The politics of reopening the prison also tap into a national debate. The American Civil Liberties Union has repeatedly criticized CCA, citing years of lawsuits and federal investigations they say point to a pattern of bad practices. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both spoken out against for-private prisons in their presidential campaigns.

Jonathan Burns, spokesman for CCA, said critics might misunderstand the proposal in Minnesota. If the state leases the prison, it would also operate it, and CCA would merely act as a landlord, he said.

"What's being discussed is simply a model where the state would run the facility with state employees," said Burns. "That's actually not the private prison model — that's actually a different model."

Political sticking points

Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, whose district includes Swift County, said he'll most likely carry the Appleton bill. Koenen is open to other options, like drug reform, but more space will be needed to accommodate the growing prison population, he said.

A campaign is already mounting against the proposal. Gov. Mark Dayton and several DFL legislators say they favor an approach to curb the inmate population.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, ranks among the prison's supporters, both as solution to overcrowding and to the economic downturn in Swift County. He will oppose any proposal to expand DOC facilities and create more beds that doesn't also include the Appleton plan, he said

"I think it's a total smoke and mirrors by the DFL," said Cornish. "They will come up with horror stories about this prison and private prisons, but it all goes back to one thing, and that's union protection by the DFL. It defies common sense."

Block is among ex-employees who have remained in Appleton since the facility closed. At the time, he'd climbed the ranks to lieutenant. Now he works winters as grain inspector and spends warmer months as a farm hand.

If the prison does come back, he'd likely seek a job there, he said. But there's a more important reason he wants to see it reopen: "Having the town become alive again. That's what excited me the most — just to have that life back in the city that's been missing so long since the prison closed."

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036