Minnesota is running out of places to put its prisoners.

With inmate ranks at the state’s 10 prisons already swollen beyond capacity, the Department of Corrections planned to seek $141 million this year to add space for 500 more prisoners at its Rush City facility. But Gov. Mark Dayton left the project out of his bonding proposal — effectively killing it, at least for now — and instead offered a more modest $8.5 million plan that would house less than a quarter of the roughly 560 inmate overflow.

Dayton said he wants to work with the department and lawmakers this year on a long-term strategy to reduce the state’s prison population, calling major building projects “a solution of the last resort.”

The dramatic difference in proposals underscores the difficulty of solving a complicated and politically fraught problem decades in the making.

Minnesota has one of the smallest prison population rates in the country, but while some of the nation’s largest corrections systems, such as New York and California, have been reducing population rates in recent years, Minnesota’s has spiked. Since 2000, the incarceration rate has jumped nearly 50 percent — one of the most rapid growth rates in the country. In the process, Minnesota’s prisons have simply run out of room.

Lawmakers launched a task force last summer designed to address the population crisis, but with six weeks to go before the legislative session, no clear solution has emerged.

In the meantime, the state has been leaning on county jails to warehouse the inmate overflow, a short-term fix that state officials acknowledge is less than ideal, given jails don’t offer the same mental health, drug abuse and education programs as prison. Without another solution — and if the prison population continues to rise, as DOC projects — those facilities could soon run out space, too, said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who’s heading up the population task force.

“It’s my hope that we can deal with the issue now — this session,” said Latz. “It’s also my hope that this will not turn into a political football.”

Releasing prisoners early

Despite the lack of funds for the Rush City project, the Department of Corrections is pleased with Dayton’s bonding proposal, said Bruce Reiser, assistant commissioner of facility services. All told, it would give $53.8 million to corrections, with most of that going to preservation, maintenance and facility upgrades.

The $8.5 million would fund a renovation for Lino Lakes, making way for 60 more beds, according to estimates from Dayton’s office. It would also bankroll the expansion of DOC’s Challenge Incarceration Program, which temporarily houses and grants early release to nonviolent prisoners who voluntarily complete 18 months of intensive boot camp, drug treatment, cognitive skills and transition classes and close community supervision.

Right now, the early release program has room for only 260 inmates. Dayton’s plan would increase the capacity to 325. Prison officials and legislators say the program has been a success so far, and they’re optimistic that it could effectively cut the prison population over time.

More immediately, with Rush City off the table, some legislators are pushing to reopen Prairie Correctional Facility, a private prison in Appleton, Minn., that closed in 2010. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who co-chairs the prison task force with Latz, said the state could lease or buy the prison outright, which he sees as a viable solution to overpopulation.

“It’s a state-of-the-art facility sitting there, not used,” said Cornish. “The entire community in Appleton backs this — they’re really suffering economically and this would be a big boon.”

DFL opposition

DFL lawmakers have come out staunchly against the Appleton plan, however, and Cornish doesn’t think the proposal would get much support from across the aisle.

“I don’t know if we could get one vote from the DFL,” said Cornish. “Right there is a big problem, because if we’re going to build, that’s how it’s going to end up: a disagreement of where to put the money and then falling flat.”

Other proposals include reforming the state’s drug laws, which have been major drivers to the prison population. At least three bills already have been introduced that would ease penalties for major drug crimes, and could in turn reduce the prison population by hundreds of inmates, according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, which studies data and sets sentencing recommendations for judges.

Last month, the guidelines commission passed a plan to lower recommended prison sentences for first-time offenders convicted of major drug offenses. If legislators take no action, the overhaul will go into effect Aug. 1, but it’s plausible lawmakers will block or change the proposal this session.

Latz said he plans to announce his own proposal next month based on testimony and data presented at the population task force meetings. Like Dayton, he also believes legislators and corrections officials should examine possibilities for lowering the population before rushing to green-light any major building.

But Latz also acknowledges that any solution has the potential for backlash.

“It’s very hard for legislators to vote to take steps that could be politicized in a campaign as being soft on crime,” he said.