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CCA to close Appleton prison


APPLETON -- Corrections Corporation of America plans to close its Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton on or about Feb. 1, 2010.

Warden Tim Wengler notified the facility's remaining 125 employees of the decision on Friday morning.

The warden said it was difficult news to deliver, but that he remains hopeful of seeing the facility reopened.

The company will continue to market the facility and will reopen its doors if a contract to house new inmates can be negotiated, according to Louise Grant, vice president of marketing and communications with Corrections Corporation of America at its Nashville, Tenn., headquarters.

Minnesota will be removing its 200 inmates in the private prison at the end of January, and that will leave the 1,600-bed facility without any inmates, according to information from Corrections Corporation of America.

Minnesota and the state of Washington have been slowly removing their inmates from Prairie Correctional Facility this year due to the availability of space in their own prison systems.

In early October, Prairie Correctional Facility had announced plans to lay off 120 employees by Dec. 1. The remaining employees had been bracing for the possibility of further layoffs when they gathered to hear the news Friday, which also happened to be the day for their annual Christmas party.

"It's not anything we didn't expect, but when you actually hear it, it's a different thing,'' said Appleton Mayor Ron Ronning.

The mayor is among those who will be laid off. He has been with the facility for more than 15 years, having started just one year after its opening.

Ronning described the closing as "devastating'' to the community's economy.

He expressed concerns about a domino effect. Some local businesses are likely to respond by trimming their staffs as the loss of spending by the prison and its employees is felt.

Ronning said he is also concerned that the departure of workers will undermine the housing market.

Local government will be hurt as well. The prison is responsible for more than $1.1 million annually in taxes and purchases of water and wastewater services, the mayor said.

When the prison was at its full staffing level of 370 positions, the economic value of the salaries it provided and services it purchased in the region was calculated at $45 million annually.

Despite the losses, Mayor Ronning is keeping an optimistic outlook. He pointed out that Corrections Corporation of America owns the facility and has invested $6.3 million in upgrades to it during the last three years. In terms of operations, Prairie Correctional Facility has consistently been ranked as among the best in the Corrections Corporation of America system.

The mayor said he remains confident that the corporation will find new clients for the facility and reopen.

He believes that many of its longer-term employees will "hunker down'' and wait it out. He hopes that the prison can reopen before many of its younger employees -- and consequently those with young and school-aged children -- leave for employment opportunities elsewhere.

The company is planning to host a job fair in mid-December with the Minnesota Work Force Center for the laid-off employees. Corrections Corporation of America is also offering opportunities to the laid-off employees to fill openings at the other 64 correctional facilities it operates.

Appleton employees who accept positions within the corporation will be given the first opportunity to return to jobs at Prairie Correctional Facility when it reopens, according to Warden Wengler.

He said that a handful of employees spoke to him Friday about opportunities elsewhere. Fourteen of the employees laid off earlier this autumn have taken positions elsewhere with Corrections Corporation of America. Wengler said he anticipates more will do the same.

Like the mayor, Wengler said he remains hopeful of seeing the facility re-opened. He noted that the corporation is moving forward with plans to upgrade the facility's heating and air exchange systems this year. Wengler will remain on duty to oversee the facility and continue to market it.

Grant said Corrections Corporation of America is doing all that it can to find another governmental correctional agency facing overcrowding and in immediate need of inmate space.

On behalf of the Appleton prison, the Minnesota Department of Corrections has responded to a request for proposals from the state of Pennsylvania, which is looking to house an excess inmate population. Grant said Pennsylvania has not yet made a decision on the offers it has received. Nor has it indicated when it would, she said.

Tom Cherveny

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

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