APPLETON - Efforts to reopen the Prairie Correctional Facility continue to face major challenges in the state Legislature, but support from local elected officials remains strong.
More than 40 people, many of them county commissioners from Lyon County to Stevens County, toured the vacant Prairie Correctional Facility on Wednesday in Appleton. They left asking their hosts how they can support its re-opening.
Swift County is leading that effort, and has been pressing the issue of re-opening the facility with state legislators and the Department of Corrections, according to Gary Hendrickx, chairman of the Swift County Board of Commissioners.
The point being made to the state is this: Prairie Correctional Facility offers an answer to overcrowding estimated at anywhere between 500 to 700 inmates in the state system, according to Hendrickx and Kelsey Baker, county administrator. "Alleviate the overcrowding, open this place and then you have a better situation from the state position,'' said Hendrickx.
The prison's owner, CoreCivic of Nashville, Tennessee, continues to maintain the 1,660-bed facility at the ready to host inmates, and that was the point of the tour. The visitors saw that the facility remains in the same physical state to hold inmates as it was when the last of them left in 2010.
CoreCivic keeps a maintenance staff at the facility 24/7, and has been investing an average of around $500,000 a year in building upkeep and repairs, according to Steve Sumner, maintenance supervisor.
The facility once employed nearly 350 people when it held approximately 1,600 inmates. It continues to pay property taxes. Last year's tax bill for the prison was $845,908, and the bill for the Jacob's Trading facility was $45,578. Jacob's Trading Facility is on the prison grounds and inmates were employed in it.
The prison provides one-third of the property tax revenues for the city of Appleton, population 1,400, according to Roman Fidler, its city clerk/treasurer.
CoreCivic is pursuing all opportunities to reopen the facility. It is submitting a bid to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which recently put out a request for proposals to house up to 500 detainees in the St. Paul region, according to Kelly Durham, state partnership relations with CoreCivic.
The bid is due June 26. If awarded, detainees would arrive in 2021.
Durham and Donnie Hyatt with CoreCivic told the local officials on Wednesday that CoreCivic is open to a variety of options for the facility. It's "absolutely" open to the facility's possible sale to the state, according to Durham. But she added that it also open to leasing it to the state, in which case state union employees would staff and operate it.
CoreCivic will also pursue any opportunities to house out-of-state inmates, she said. CoreCivic operates about 65 prisons, and currently has about 10 vacant prisons, Durham told her guests.
She said the company is confident of its ability to re-staff the facility if it can be reopened. While it operated, it had one of the most tenured of staffs among CoreCivic facilities around the country, she said.
Last year, legislation calling on the state to buy or lease the prison culminated in a rancorous hearing and lots of debate.
This year, state Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, introduced legislation that would prohibit the operation of a private prison in the state. A new Department of Corrections commissioner, Paul Schnell, has made it known that he does not favor private prisons.
State Reps. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, and Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and state Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, have introduced bills in their respective chambers this session for the state to purchase the prison. The bills appropriate $139 million with $74 million of that earmarked for the prison's purchase and the remainder for new equipment and renovations to meet new standards.
There's no predicting how any of this legislation will go, but Hendrickx said he doubts that Minnesota will put inmates in the facility while it is privately owned.
"If there is going to be a Minnesota inmate in here, it is going to be owned publicly. That's the environment that we're at, at this point," he said.
Much of the opposition to the state's use of the prison has come from labor unions, according to the county officials on the tour. Hendrickx acknowledged the same, and said he and others have continued to make the point that the facility would be operated with union employees if it is state-owned.
There's one outcome that's desired, he said: "To get it open, to get the jobs here, for the region."
The facility consists of four separate but joined buildings able to hold inmates, and operations can be scaled based on different numbers of inmates, according to Sumner.
However, ideas being floated around to possibly hold some county jail inmates in the facility while sharing it with either state inmates or federal detainees are not very likely. State regulations make it very difficult if not impossible to house county inmates in a facility where inmates from other jurisdictions are present, according to Swift County Sheriff John Holtz.
Federal rules are just as stringent. Hendickx said ICE requires a physical barrier if different jurisdictions share a facility. It means that even in the administration area, a wall would have to be built to separate workers dealing with inmates from different jurisdictions.