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Prairie Correctional plans to lay off 120

APPLETON -- Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton is cutting its workforce by more than half in response to declining inmate numbers.

The facility notified 120 workers Friday that they would be laid off effective Dec. 1. It will leave a working staff of 110, according to Warden Tim Wengler.

The decision was forced when the private, 1,600-bed prison learned that the State of Washington would be removing 100 inmates, the warden told community representatives at a meeting on Friday. There are currently 342 inmates in the facility from the states of Washington and Minnesota. The warden and other administrators met earlier in the morning with employees at the facility, and have been meeting individually with those affected by the layoffs.

The cuts go across the board, and involve administrative and correctional positions alike, according to the warden.

The facility has been working hard to avoid layoffs since last spring when the state of Minnesota began to pare its number of inmates at the facility. The facility had avoided layoffs by reducing the two-week work period to 72 hours and by allowing workers to transfer to other facilities within the Corrections Corporation of America, the prison's owner. The Nashville, Tenn., based company is extending that offer to all of the employees to be laid off. Steve Conry, vice president of operations for CCA, said Appleton employees were told they could transfer to other CCA facilities and maintain full pay and benefits with the promise they could return to their Appleton jobs when they become available.

Conry said CCA could absorb virtually all of the laid off employees at other facilities, but realizes that many will be unwilling to leave families behind to relocate. He said the Appleton facility will host a job fair, and offer classes on job seeking skills as well as bringing in Minnesota Work Force representatives to assist the employees in the coming weeks.

The company is also continuing to work hard to market the facility to other states, according to Conry.

He blamed the decline in inmate numbers on tight state budgets and the facility's location. He said nationwide, CCA has just opened a new facility in Georgia and is seeing lots of demand for housing inmates in the Deep South and the Far West.

Appleton's location in the Midwest puts it at a disadvantage right now, since many states are wary of the expenses associated with transportation. "It's hard for those states to make decisions to go long distance,'' he said.

Conry said CCA is currently negotiating with two states with some interest in using the Appleton facility, but at this point he indicated he did not want to give employees false hopes. Overall, he said he is optimistic that the facility will again see a rise in inmate numbers. He pointed out that the facility has consistently been rated as one of the best in the industry.

Both Conry and Wengler also emphasized that the Minnesota Department of Corrections has been assisting the prison in its marketing efforts. Minnesota has been transferring its inmates on an individual basis to state facilities. Wengler said that the state's withdrawal of inmates should not be viewed as an "us versus Minnesota DOC'' basis.

He said Minnesota had planned well and has space within its system for inmates. "They did their job right and planned,'' he said.

Conry said CCA remains committed to the Appleton facility and hopes the reduction is no more than a "short term ramp down.''

News of the layoffs was not entirely unexpected in Appleton, but the news was clearly painful.

"There is a lot of hurt here right now,'' said Bob Thompson, city administrator and one of those instrumental in the prison's development here over 17 years ago.

He said people in the community are concerned about how the lay offs will affect the many families who have one and in some cases, two spouses working at the facility. The layoffs will also send economic ripples throughout the community and region. The prison is one of the largest employers in Swift County, and its employees are from communities throughout an area that goes well beyond Swift County's boundaries.

The facility held 855 inmates as recently as May, and previously had a workforce of more than 350.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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