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Coalition continues to oppose private prison in Appleton

SAINT PAUL - A coalition of religious and civil rights organizations will continue to oppose legislation that calls for the State of Minnesota to lease or purchase the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton.

Tribune file photo / The Prairie Correctional Facility was opened to tours by the public prior to the push for legislation to reopen it in 2016. Visitors are in one of the housing units known as pods.
Tribune file photo / The Prairie Correctional Facility was opened to tours by the public prior to the push for legislation to reopen it in 2016. Visitors are in one of the housing units known as pods.

SAINT PAUL - A coalition of religious and civil rights organizations will continue to oppose legislation that calls for the State of Minnesota to lease or purchase the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton.

"Locking up people for profit has nothing to do with justice and has everything to do with making millions from human misery,'' said Rick Neyssen, a corrections sergeant at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud and president of Local 599 with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees during a teleconference with reporters on Tuesday.

He was among those speaking Tuesday on behalf of the Stop CCA Coalition shortly before a House committee heard testimony on legislation by Representative Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg to re-open the prison.

Rachel English, a community organizer with Jewish Community Action, said the broad coalition remains opposed to private corporations profiting from corrections. It is against the state leasing the Appleton facility, even if it is staffed with state corrections officers, according to those who spoke at the teleconference.

English said the coalition has not taken a position on the possibility of a state purchase of the Appleton facility. She expressed concern that it would benefit the owner of the Appleton facility, now known as CoreCivic and formerly as Corrections Corporation of America. "In general we want that money to be going towards supporting alternative services in west central (Minnesota),'' she said in response to a question.

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Local legislators argue that reopening the prisons will solve overcrowding that has led the Department of Corrections to house state inmates in county jails. The legislators argue that inmates are not receiving the services that help reduce recidivism while in county jails. There are currently over 300 state inmates in county jails, according to the Department of Corrections. It projects that the state's inmate population will continue to slowly rise in the next decade.

Coalition speakers called for sentencing reforms to reduce the state's inmate population. Tommy Franklin, a former inmate in Appleton and organizer with Take Action Minnesota, said the state continues to incarcerate too many for nonviolent drug offenses, and also many who have violated probation or parole.

Franklin said he served most of a four-year prison sentence in Appleton. He said he found a "night a day'' difference between it and three other state correctional facilities where he served time. "Drastically worse,'' he said of the Appleton facility in terms of employee attitudes and morale, as well as services available to inmates under operations by the then-Community Corrections of America.

Neyssen warned of what he called a "bait and switch.'' He charged that CoreCivic would eventually raise its lease rate for the prison significantly or take over its operations and staff it with low wage, non-union officers.

Neyssen and Franklin were joined by Erik Hatlestad, a New London city council member, and Catalina Morales, who works with the immigrant community in the Willmar area with ISAIAH, in expressing concerns about for-profit operation of prisons. Morales is among those in the coalition who are concerned that the prison could be re-opened as an immigration detention center.

Hatlestad said the prison bill only serves to continue the divide between urban and rural areas of the state. "Put bluntly, this bill puts the interest of the rural poor against the interests of the urban poor,'' he said.

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