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Reopening of Appleton prison still alive after Minnesota House vote

The Minnesota House of Representatives approved an omnibus bill Friday that includes an amendment to reopen the 1,600-bed Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton. (TOM LARSON | TRIBUNE)

Clarification: This story was updated to note that the North Minneapolis town hall meeting on April 19 was organized by  Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis.

APPLETON — A proposal that would reopen the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton took its biggest step forward to date.

The Minnesota House of Representatives approved an omnibus bill early Friday morning that includes an amendment by Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, to reopen the 1,600-bed prison. The amendment requires the state to contract to operate and purchase or lease to own the privately owned Prairie Correctional Facility.

“I can’t say we’re always moving forward by leaps and bounds, but what’s been remarkable and I’m very thankful for and I’m very encouraged by, this whole thing always continues to move forward,’’ said Rep. Miller when reached by phone Friday.

The omnibus bill includes legislation concerning public safety, civil law, and health and human services. The Appleton prison amendment is included as part of the public safety language.

The proposal to reopen the Prairie Correctional Facility has proven controversial, and that was the case as House members debated the omnibus bill.

Miller said DFL members of the House offered five or six different amendments aimed at killing his bill or ensuring that the Appleton facility never reopens.

Miller said he believes supporters of the prison have addressed all the concerns raised, from a racial disparity in the state’s prison population to the concerns of state union employees.

Miller also met with 40 to 50 residents of North Minneapolis April 19 at a town hall meeting, which was organized by Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis.  The meeting was next door to the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct station. Miller said he can’t know if the meeting changed opinions, but said it served as an opportunity to hold a conversation about racial disparity.

He said he has also met with residents who have expressed concerns that the Appleton facility would be used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As a state-operated correctional facility, it would not be used by the federal agency, he said.

Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, has introduced a bill in the Senate that contains similar language as Miller’s amendment to reopen the prison. Koenen said the bill is aimed at keeping open options for the proposal, but noted it faces a difficult road in the Senate.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, has expressed his opposition, and it’s his committee which would need to hear the bill, Koenen explained.

Gov. Mark Dayton has also said he would veto legislation to reopen the facility.

The House action to include Miller’s amendment assures the prison measure is alive for debate when a House and Senate conference committee is formed later to rectify differences in legislation from the two chambers.

Tom Cherveny

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

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