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Anxiety high in Appleton over talk of moving Minnesota inmates

APPLETON -- Anxiety levels are running high in Appleton, where workers at the Prairie Correctional Facility are fearful that a proposal to transfer inmates to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault will cost them their jobs.

"Devastating,'' is how Appleton Mayor Ron Ronning, himself an employee of the private prison, described the consequences to his community should the facility be closed or mothballed. The mayor was among well over 120 people, most of them employees of the facility, who packed the Appleton Civic Center on Friday morning for a town meeting hosted by State Senator Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, and State Representative Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock.

The 1,600 bed Appleton facility is currently housing 542 inmates from Minnesota, and another 525 from the state of Washington, according to Tim Wengler, its warden. The state of Washington has been slowly reducing its number of inmates.

Joan Fabian, commissioner, Department of Corrections, has proposed moving its Minnesota inmates at Prairie Correctional Facility to Faribault, which has recently been expanded by 80 beds and is being remodeled. It would continue to use the Appleton facility on an "as needed basis,'' according to Senator Kubly.

The loss of the Minnesota inmates would force Corrections Corporation of America, owner of the Appleton facility, to pare its staffing accordingly, Warden Wengler told the Tribune. He said CCA is working aggressively to contract prisoners from other states, but acknowledged that it is proving difficult.

It is currently negotiating with Alaska, but he noted that nearly ever state is facing serious budget deficits and looking at ways to cut costs.

The Appleton prison currently employs 269 people, down from a high of 370 positions. It has been paring its work force through attrition, and has not hired since last July, according to PCF officials.

Employees of the private prison said they would have little choice but to look for employment outside the region if their jobs are lost.

The Department of Corrections has testified at the capitol that it could save money by moving inmates to Faribault, but speakers in Appleton disputed the claims. They said the state is saving money by using the private prison while inmates receive the same level of service as those in the state system.