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Appleton's prison hopes what is being lost will soon be replaced

APPLETON -- The State of Minnesota continues to slowly pluck its inmates from the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, but what it takes with one hand could be returned with the other.

Officials at the privately owned facility in Appleton are hopeful that legislation to repeal Minnesota's short-term offender law will be signed into law. If so, state prisoners who now complete the final 180 days of their incarceration in county jails could be serving that time in the Appleton facility. The numbers vary, but there can be as many as 300 or 350 short-term offenders in county facilities at any one time. They could help make up for some of the long-term Minnesota offenders the facility is now losing, said Timothy Wengler, warden of the Prairie Correctional Facility.

He cautioned that even if the short-term offender law is repealed, it could be weeks or months before the Appleton facility sees some of the offenders now being sent to county jails.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections is carrying out plans to move its inmates in Appleton to its own facilities, primarily to the newly remodeled and expanded prison in Faribault.

Those plans are the cause of concern in Appleton, where the Prairie Correctional Facility is one of the largest employers. A large crowd of people, many of them employees of the facility, voiced their anxieties in February at a town meeting hosted by local legislators.

Wengler said the state has been removing its inmates in small numbers based on programming needs for the individuals. The facility currently holds 442 Minnesota inmates, down from 542 earlier this year. The drawdown hasn't occurred as rapidly as originally feared, he said.

Along with inmates from the state of Washington, the Appleton facility currently holds 855 inmates.

Staffing levels at the facility are currently at 235, which he described as right where it should be for the current inmate population.

The facility has a capacity of 1,600 beds, and the warden would like to see the beds filled and staffing increased again to 353 positions.

It is currently working aggressively to market the available beds to other states. It recently sent a contract proposal to one interested party.

The facility has been able to manage the loss of Minnesota inmates without cutting jobs. The facility has been able to reduce staffing costs entirely through attrition, Wengler said.

The facility is owned by the Corrections Corporation of America. Some employees have voluntarily transferred to other facilities. Some have also taken temporary assignments elsewhere: The warden said eight are currently on an assignment in Kentucky, and four others will soon be headed to Texas.

Also, eight of the facility's staff are members of the Minnesota National Guard and are at Fort Hood, Texas, for training prior to their deployment to the Middle East.

Wengler said that the public support that has emerged for the facility since the town meeting earlier this year has helped as well. He is hopeful of seeing the short-term offender law repealed and of seeing contracts reached to house offenders from other states.

But for now, he said, it comes down to one thing. ''There is a lot of waiting going on.''