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Nearly 300 gather for meeting on reopening Prairie Correctional Facility

APPLETON -- Gov. Mark Dayton holds the key to reopening the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, local legislators told a crowd of nearly 300 at a community meeting Wednesday evening Appleton.Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, and Rep. Tim M...

Prairie Correctional Facility meeting
Nearly 300 people attended the community meeting Wednesday evening at the Appleton Armory to discuss the effort to reopen the Prairie Correctional Facility. Senator Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, addresses the audience with Representative Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg and Appleton Mayor Chad Syltie to his left. (TOM CHERVENY | TRIBUNE)

APPLETON - Gov. Mark Dayton holds the key to reopening the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, local legislators told a crowd of nearly 300 at a community meeting Wednesday evening Appleton.
Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, and Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, kept an optimistic tone as they discussed prospects for bringing what’s being called the “Appleton option’’ to the Legislature this session.
A city of Appleton and Swift County task force is urging the state to lease the vacant, 1,600-bed prison from its owner, Corrections Corporation of America. It would help the state address overcrowding in its prisons. More than 500 state inmates are currently held at 18 different county jails due to a shortage of state beds, the task force says.
A $140 million bonding request by the Minnesota Department of Corrections to expand the Rush City correctional facility by 500 beds to address this issue is what prompted Appleton and Swift County to take on this campaign to reopen the Prairie Correctional Facility.
“This has bipartisan support,’’ Rep. Miller told the Appleton audience. He said there is “incredible support’’ in the House for reopening the facility. He said he is confident that Koenen will be able to pass legislation in the Senate too.
Koenen said there is interest in the Senate for reopening the prison, but also cautioned that “not everyone is on board” with the idea. He said a state lease of the privately owned facility - in which it would be staffed by state employees who are union members - eliminates one of the main concerns he hears from colleagues.
He said a number of senators remain concerned that we “lock up too many people,’’ and they fear that adding prison bed capacity by leasing the Appleton facility will exacerbate that problem.
Koenen said he believes that a growing state population will keep inmate levels trending upward, even if sentencing reforms are approved. Leasing the Appleton facility would also provide the state with flexibility to address inmate numbers that are likely to ebb and flow over time, he added.
Miller said his confidence in legislative support comes after witnessing the reactions of legislators who have toured the facility. It has been kept ready to reopen since the last inmates left in February 2010. One of the latest visitors was Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, chairman of the House Capital Investment Committee. “He looked at me and said ‘this is a no brainer,’ ’’ Miller said.
Regional interest in seeing the prison reopen is as easy to explain as well. It once had a staff of 350 and an annual payroll of $15 million, Swift County Commissioner Gary Hendrickx told the crowd.
The prison was originally built in 1990-91 in response to the outmigration of residents occurring during the farm crisis of the late 1980s. Those concerns are no different today; the jobs no less important, he said.
Hendrickx said one of the questions Gov. Dayton raised to him in a meeting a few months ago was whether the state would be able to find the workers needed to staff the facility. He said he pointed out that Corrections Corporation of America was able to staff the facility, and that there remain many people in the region and elsewhere who prefer a rural lifestyle. “We’re ready for that question, we can do it,’’ he said to applause.
He and others on the task force said they would like to host the governor and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith for a tour of the prison and community.
Community members mainly voiced support to reopen the facility during an open forum portion of the meeting Wednesday evening. Some urged the legislators to consider a lease-to-buy option. Others also urged the legislators to remind their colleagues that rural Minnesota’s needs need to be addressed, and that the state’s western boundary is not I-494 or Hutchinson.
In response to questions about what people can do, the legislators emphasized the importance of contacting other elected officials to voice support for the Appleton option. Swift County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver said it’s also important to make sure the message about the benefits and importance of reopening the facility continue to be heard. “We have to keep telling our story,’’ he said.

For more information, go to appletonoption.org.

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A view from inside the Appleton prison

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