15 years later, prison has grown bigger than the dream
APPLETON -- Something that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago happened Thursday in Appleton. There was a celebration to mark the success of the Prairie Correctional Facility. What was then a $28 million, 500-bed facility officially opened ...
APPLETON -- Something that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago happened Thursday in Appleton.
There was a celebration to mark the success of the Prairie Correctional Facility.
What was then a $28 million, 500-bed facility officially opened its doors 15 years ago on Sept. 19, 1992, but it had no inmates. Try as it might, the city of Appleton -- which owned the facility -- could not get a contract for inmates until the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico sent the first of its prisoners eight months later.
"Frustrating experience,'' said Bob Thompson, Appleton city administrator who had first proposed the idea of a municipally owned, private prison. Thompson spoke Thursday during a celebration hosted at the facility, where he was hailed by Warden Tim Wengler as "the father of the prison.''
The facility's new warden was among the first class of correctional officers trained for the new facility. Speaking after the ceremony, Wengler said he remembered days when he and his fellow workers were afraid to come to work. They feared the doors would be locked and their jobs gone.
They nearly were: Thompson said there were meetings where the investors holding the bonds on the project wanted the city to fire the workers to stop the hemorrhage of reserve funds.
Ron Ronning, who is the maintenance supervisor at the facility and was Appleton's mayor at its opening, said its story is one of "perseverance and dedication.''
Today, the Prairie Correctional Facility is holding 1,640 inmates -- its capacity. Nearly 1,200 of the inmates are from Minnesota. The others are from Washington state.
The facility has 348 employees, according to Wengler.
The first prisoners from Puerto Rico were followed in subsequent years by inmates from the states of Iowa, Colorado, Idaho, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Washington and now Minnesota. The U.S. Marshal Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now known as Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also contracted for prison beds.
The facility's milestones included its purchase in 1997 by the Corrections Corporation of America and the company's investment one year later to expand the facility to 1,600 beds.
Ronning said the prison was built by a community looking to reverse years of economic decline. Appleton had lost one-third of its population in less than 20 years. There was one 12-month period that saw 10 businesses close their doors. The town lost three of its four farm implement dealers and three of its four hardware stores, he said.
"Today, it is not what we envisioned 17 years ago,'' said Thompson of the prison and its impact on the community. The Prairie Correctional Facility is much larger than its founders ever envisioned, and so is its impact, according to Thompson.
It has helped Appleton, but not always in the expected ways. "It hasn't been able to completely rebuild the business community like we hoped for at one time,'' Thompson said. The trend to big-box, regional shopping centers has kept Appleton and other small, rural communities from seeing any significant increase in retail businesses.
Appleton, with a population of 2,871, is too small for a project of this size, according to Thompson. The limited availability of labor has forced the facility to recruit its workers on a regional basis. Warden Wengler said some of its employees commute from as far as Starbuck, Willmar, Montevideo and Redwood Falls.
Recruiting workers is one of the challenges facing the facility, he said.
Thompson said the facility attracts younger workers who tend to demand more amenities than a community the size of Appleton can offer. The community's size also means there are limited job opportunities for the spouses of prison employees.
But without a doubt, Thompson said the facility has benefited the community. It has served to help stabilize the economy, benefiting both the city and region as a whole. In the same respect, the jobs provided by the prison have given many young people from Appleton and the region an opportunity to earn a living and stay in the rural area.
Wengler's return to Appleton a few months ago as the facility's warden is evidence of that. A native of Belgrade, Wengler said that he accepted promotions within Corrections Corporation of America that led to assignments in Ohio and Arizona. The opportunity at Appleton came up suddenly for him, but he said there was no hesitation. He was happy for the chance to return home.