Private prisons would be banned from doing business in Minnesota as part of a renewed push at the Capitol to stop the for-profit prison industry from gaining a foothold in the state.
Minnesota’s only private prison, Prairie Correctional Facility, a 1,600-bed prison in Appleton, opened in the 1990s but has been dormant since losing contracts in 2010. Its owner, CoreCivic, has proposed turning it into a holding facility for immigration detainees and backed earlier proposals for the state to lease or sell the facility.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, the new proposal’s sponsor, said Tuesday that any correctional solutions should come from within the public sector and not from corporations that “put their profits ahead of public safety.”
Winkler’s proposal has drawn the support of Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell and several state prison employees. Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, said he would soon back a similar measure in the Senate, saying Tuesday that the Trump administration’s reversal of the Justice Department’s 2016 plan to stop using private prisons added new urgency to the effort. Winkler, meanwhile, cited the recent federal sentencing overhaul, which will shorten many prison sentences and reduce prison crowding, as a signal that the state measure could attract wider support in Minnesota.
“The whole country recognizes that we went too far on ‘tough on crime’ and that we need to reconsider our whole criminal justice system,” Winkler said. “And I think the recognition that having a for-profit corporation that has a financial incentive to lobby for tougher sentences and putting more people in prison so that they can make more money is not a good situation to be in.”
As of Jan. 1, state prisons housed 9,479 adults.
Schnell, and multiple prison officers, questioned the incentives of for-profit prison operations on Tuesday. The DOC is trying to reduce overcrowding. Gov. Tim Walz is seeking to add more corrections officers and facility upgrades aimed at improving officer safety after the deaths last year of two officers and an uptick in staff assaults. But Schnell said Tuesday that any improvements should be achieved through “sound correctional practices.” He questioned the motivation of a private prison business he compared to other industries that have “an intrinsic motivation to keep customers coming back.”
“Is this the right business model for our prisons?” Schnell said.
Amanda Gilchrist, a CoreCivic spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the corporation has offered to help the state address “the challenge of significant prison overcrowding” by leasing or selling the Prairie Correctional Facility, which she said would be operated by state employees.
“This facility would provide a means to significantly increase opportunities for inmate rehabilitation and re-entry programming, particularly for those individuals currently held in local jails while they await placement in the state system,” Gilchrist said.
But William Pharr, a Lino Lakes corrections officer who worked for more than a decade at the Prairie Correctional Facility, described a workplace that was frequently understaffed, imposed forced overtime work and whose management refused to listen to safety concerns.
“They had this mentality there with the executive team that they know best,” Pharr said Tuesday. “So we were just told we had to be robots and follow.”
Rick Neyssen, a local AFSCME representative and sergeant at Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud, argued that if private prison companies gained traction in the state, lawmakers could expect lobbying for stricter sentences to boost the need for prison beds.
“They are working toward keeping the cash flowing, not toward providing their charges with the tools to interrupt the cycles of prison stays or life skills to use on the outside,” Neyssen said. “Cutting corners is their business model.”