APPLETON — It’s quiet on the western front this legislative session, as compared to previous years when bills were introduced and local campaigns launched to promote the reopening of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton.
Don’t mistake the lack of activity for a lack of interest. The reopening of the vacant, 1,600-bed private prison remains a priority for the Appleton community as well as area legislators. The facility has not held inmates since 2010.
State Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, and Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, said the possibility of someday reopening the facility remains very much at play. It’s just not going to be a topic for this legislative session for a number of reasons, according to the legislators.
Some of it is related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Inmate numbers in the state are down and the Department of Corrections is not seeking additional beds at this time, according to the legislators.
The Department of Corrections is also very focused on managing its operations during the pandemic. This is not the time to raise discussions when the department is managing many immediate and challenging needs, the legislators said.
Miller and Lang remain optimistic overall. Progress has been slow, “but we have not lost ground,” said Miller. He said things are more or less in a holding pattern right now.
Lang believes prospects for reopening the facility will emerge in the future. Appleton remains in a good position, he said. Previously approved legislation requires that the Department of Corrections consider the facility as an option when it considers facility needs.
And, the legislators believe it is only a matter of time before the department again looks at facility needs. Many of its existing facilities are very old, they pointed out. “Appleton becomes more and more attractive,” said Lang.
Inmate numbers could rise after the pandemic and lead the Department of Corrections to once again consider adding capacity, they added. The department had requested $141 million to add 500 beds to the Rush City Correctional Facility in 2016 when inmate numbers were rising.
Miller said the pandemic likely has a role in the current decline in the number of inmates. There has been an increase in the number of people sentenced to probation rather than prison during the pandemic, he said.
The local representative said one possible use for the Appleton facility would be to hold offenders who are serving relatively short sentences. He said he learned from discussions with Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell that there are offenders who are returned to prison and have relatively short sentences to serve, in many cases less than a year. There is currently no facility programmed specifically for these inmates.
While state use of the facility remains their priority, the legislators also noted that a possible mix of uses could be possible as well. Since the facility is divided into segregated pods, a portion of the facility could be used to hold jail inmates from local counties, for example. That’s among a number of different proposals that have been discussed in the past, although the legislators say no decisions were ever made.
Gary Hendrickx of Appleton has been active in efforts to reopen the facility as a member of the Swift County Board of Commissioners. He said the facility’s owner, CoreCivic, continues to maintain the facility at the ready. It invested in roof repairs this last year, and is paying a hefty annual property tax bill for it as well, he said.
He said he has also encouraged the company to consider making its Jacob’s Trading Post facility at the prison site available for commercial use. The facility includes loading docks and has ample interior space to serve as a warehouse distribution center or for other uses along those lines, he said.
There have also been discussions in the past about exploring the use of the prison facility for alternative uses. Hendrickx and the legislators said they are not aware of any proposals that have advanced.
Hendrickx emphasized that the community remains ready to work with CoreCivic and promote the facility for reopening as a prison or for other uses. He pointed out that its future lies very much in the hands of CoreCivic. “At the end of the day, it is not our building,” he said.