The Department of Corrections plans to shutter operations at its two smallest prisons in greater Minnesota, an unprecedented cost-saving measure that will result in the layoffs of 100 more employees to help reduce a projected $14 million deficit.
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell on Monday announced his intent to close minimum-security facilities in Togo and Willow River, which host the popular Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP), a military-style boot camp for nonviolent inmates to earn early release. About 150 prisoners housed at those sites will be transferred to other facilities starting this fall, when that program is slated to resume.
"Our budget is in crisis," Schnell wrote in a departmentwide e-mail obtained by the Star Tribune. "With each week that passes without taking these steps, the hole only gets deeper, potentially leading to more needed savings. We have to take strong decisive action now."
The disclosure comes just two weeks after the department cut 48 jobs across the state to meet "unforeseen budget shortfalls" related to the coronavirus pandemic. A senior official told lawmakers last month that contractual salary increases, ballooning overtime for officers and loss of revenue from the agency's industrial MINNCOR program all contributed to the deficit — which is expected to nearly double in the next biennium without significant cuts.
The labor union representing most pink-slipped employees opposes the department's plan to close the prisons and consolidate staff, while laying blame at the feet of a divided state government.
"The Legislature has historically failed to provide funding that would protect correctional officers, staff and the public," Julie Bleyhl, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, said in a statement. "These workers are on our front lines and deserve our thanks and admiration for their work, not layoff notices."
The DOC had appealed to state legislators, who ultimately failed to pass a supplemental budget proposal that included aid for the DOC in the last special session. A House proposal included $11.7 million more in corrections funding for the current two-year budget, while a Senate spending bill would have devoted an additional $18.5 million to corrections needs. The bulk of the dollars would have gone to staffing and overtime costs.
"Consequences kick in when we can't get an agreement and get things done," DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Monday, citing reductions at the Department of Corrections as an example.
Hortman said Democrats plan to push for a supplemental budget as well as a public works borrowing plan, called the bonding bill, during a special session in September.
Lawmakers failed to pass the bonding measure during last month's special session.
The Republican majority in the Senate proposed borrowing nearly $66.3 million to support corrections infrastructure projects in their version of the bonding bill, while the DFL-led House had $44.5 million for corrections in their plan. Both proposals included $2.6 million for a sewer treatment system at the Togo facility and about $1.9 million for a new communications system at Willow River.
In an interview, Schnell said the agency can't risk waiting for a bailout that may never come. He noted that it would be difficult to keep those sites viable long-term without critical upgrades.
"There were no good options available to us," he said. "It's death by a thousand cuts, which impacts everybody at every facility, or we make these definitive cuts that are painful ... but have to be made."
The combined annual budget for Togo and Willow River is approximately $11 million. Additional cutbacks from central office personnel and a renegotiation of service contracts are also required to balance the budget, officials said.
As union members, most employees have 21 days to exercise "bumping rights" — meaning that they can shift within their existing job classification or reclaim previous positions at the agency now held by people with less seniority. It's not immediately clear how many of those laid off will retain employment at the DOC once that process is complete.
And those who can stay may not find the commute tenable. Both prisons are more than 100 miles north of the Twin Cities. Togo, the most rural detention center, is two hours away from the next closest facility in Duluth.
Budget reductions only deepened the wound for workers, who were already struggling to contain the COVID-19 crisis that has consumed operations for months behind bars.
Since the outbreak began, more than 460 prisoners have tested positive for the respiratory disease and two have died. At least 80 employees also fell ill from the virus, but the majority of them have since returned to duty.
Although Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said state agencies should be searching for ways to trim expenses, he criticized the DOC's plan to cease operations entirely at two state-run prisons.
"This isn't where I would have started," said Limmer, chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. "Public safety has to be a priority."
Togo and Willow River inmates are expected to be transferred out of both facilities by year's end, but the future of the physical buildings remains uncertain.
Togo sits on property owned by the state Department of Natural Resources, so it could be later converted for that agency's use. But Willow River is likely to be mothballed indefinitely, Schnell said, until more corrections space is needed.
Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said the agency was forced to choose between a targeted move like closing the two prisons or making broad cuts that would weaken the entire corrections system.
"They didn't have a choice," said Mariani, noting that the department is bleeding roughly $500,000 each pay period.
"I think they chose the most responsible path before them."
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