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Lawmakers want to use prison in Appleton

ST. PAUL -- Some Minnesota legislators want to move more prisoners from state facilities to a private prison, saving the state $12 million in the next two years.

Others object, saying prisons should be a state, not private, enterprise.

The 776 medium-security prisoners at the Moose Lake prison would be transferred to the Appleton facility under a bill promoted by Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.

Westrom said the bill is "another measure of common sense to save Minnesota money."

At Moose Lake, prisoners cost up to $122 per day, but just $62.90 at Appleton, Westrom said.

The newly emptied space at Moose Lake would be used for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and the bill's supporters say that planned new Moose Lake construction would not be needed.

Ingebrigtsen said it makes more financial sense to refurbish the Moose Lake facility than to build to house the offenders he proposes to move to Appleton's Prairie Correctional Facility.

But Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said that the state should not farm out prisoners.

"Many, many other states have experimented with privatizing their prisons and had dubious results," said Lourey, whose district includes Moose Lake.

Lourey said that among his fears are that workers in the Appleton prison are underpaid and that a private facility is more prone to graft.

"Any cost savings are not worth the price," he added.

Ingebrigtsen and Westrom give their bill a 50-50 chance. They promote it, in part, as a way for the state to save money in light of what most predict will be a $7 billion budget deficit.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, told the West Central Tribune that he is open to more use of Appleton, which already houses hundreds of state prisoners.

"We are open to continued use of the Appleton facility by the state of Minnesota," Pawlenty said. "We need to help keep the Appleton facility utilized and keep the community healthy."

While several states have reduced the number of prisoners they house at Appleton, Pawlenty said that Alaska is considering sending some of its prisoners there.

"My administration is also looking to utilize Appleton for some short-term offender prisoners, instead of counting on housing them at county facilities," he said. "Appleton has been a good partner for the state and we will continue to use them when it makes economic sense."

Westrom said any job loss at Moose Lake would be countered by more jobs in Appleton.

Ingebrigtsen said he was making this bill his major project for the legislative session.

"Increasing our use of private prisons also could bring a healthy element of competition to the state-run facilities to operate more efficiently and extend the savings even further," Ingebrigtsen said.