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A view from inside the Appleton prison

APPLETON -- One by one, Jackie Sigdahl met with the employees losing their jobs with the closing of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton in February 2010.Then she closed the file on her own job as the facility's human resources manager."...

Jackie Sigdahl and Ron Ronning
Jackie Sigdahl and Ron Ronning were among the longtime employees who moved on with their lives and careers after the closing of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton. Most believed the privately owned prison would reopen in months. (TOM CHERVENY | TRIBUNE)

APPLETON - One by one, Jackie Sigdahl met with the employees losing their jobs with the closing of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton in February 2010.
Then she closed the file on her own job as the facility’s human resources manager.
“It was probably one of the most emotionally, mentally draining times of my life. I don’t think I ever cried so much in like five months,’’ Sigdahl said.
Ron Ronning was mayor of Appleton and a unit manager of the prison at the time. He learned he was losing his job while on an assignment for the facility in Idaho.
Like everyone else, Sigdahl and Ronning said they believed the closing would only be temporary. “We always thought it would be open in three months,’’ Ronning said.
Six years later, they would love nothing more than to see it reopen. Ronning knows what the loss means to the community he led as mayor.
“It’s a little different world out here,’’ he said. “(There) used to be a lot of enthusiasm in the community. I just sensed it when the prison was open.”
The prison employed more than 350 people and held around 1,600 inmates at one point.
Sigdahl believes roughly 35 employees continued with the prison owner, Corrections Corporation of America, by taking new positions at facilities in other states. Others moved on to other jobs, many leaving the area.
Sigdahl had grown up in Madison, and lived in Dallas and Las Vegas before returning home to marry and raise a family. She started as an administrative assistant when the prison opened in 1992. For almost an entire year, the prison trained and paid its staff, but held no inmates as a private, 517-bed facility. “Very, very rocky,’’ said Sigdahl of the first year.
“There were days I would come to work wondering if the doors would be open,’’ she said.
Nonetheless, she declined an opportunity to return to a previous job that year. “You know what, I just can’t,’’ she said by way of declining the offer. “If this thing takes off and I’m not a part of it and I’ve been here, I just can’t. I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.’’
The first inmates arrived from Puerto Rico, roughly about the time Ronning began his employment with the prison. He had just retired from the military. His wife suggested they return to Appleton.
“I remember myself saying at the time, ‘You know Marie, all they have is a prison out there,’’’ Ronning said.
The prison offered them careers with opportunity for growth, they said. Sigdahl worked in the front office with the financial staff and wardens before becoming human resources director.
Ronning started in maintenance and became a unit manager and hearing officer, spending most of his time amid the prison’s population.
“I loved the challenge of dealing with inmates,’’ Ronning said.
Many were members of gangs, and inmates came from different states, and a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, he said.
“We dealt with a lot of different issues during the day,’’ he said.
Ronning said he felt that the prison was always in the limelight. As the only private prison in the state, it came under more scrutiny, he said.
As Appleton’s mayor and a prison employee, he testified before a legislative committee at the state Capitol at one point.
“I was amazed at the comments that were made,’’ Ronning said.
He recalls that a state senator told him: “We just don’t trust you.’’
After the prison closed, the three-month wait to return became six months and now six years.
Ronning and Sigdahl said they still run into former co-workers, but fewer of them are to be found locally.
“Wherever we meet, it’s always a smile when we talk about it,’’ Ronning said.
Among those former employees who remain in the region, Ronning said most “do not hesitate to say they would go back, at least most times.’’
Ronning went back to school when the prison closed and got a degree in medical records, but found it difficult at age 59 to land a new job in that field. Today he helps oversee transit operations with Prairie Five Community Action Council.
Sigdahl took some time off after the prison’s closing to stay home with her young children. About one and a half years later, a call came asking if she would be interested in applying for a position at the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission in Appleton. She is the administrative assistant there today.
Both are watching today’s campaign to reopen the prison and know many of their former co-workers and their neighbors are too.
“I’m amazed after all the time the hope that is still there, how they’ve hung on to that hope,’’ Ronning said. “The community especially hangs on that hope. They just want to hear the magic words one day that says we’re going to open it up.’’

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