APPLETON, Minn. — State legislators Tim Miller and Andrew Lang said they hear one question more than any other in their districts: “What’s the latest on the Appleton prison?”
“There’s not a lot of news, but there is some news,” said Rep. Miller, R-Prinsburg, to start his answer to the question. He and Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, hosted approximately 70 people at a town hall meeting Wednesday evening, Dec. 11, in Appleton.
Miller said he has now had two heart-to-heart conversations on the prison with new Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell. “He recognizes Prairie Correctional Facility is a legitimate correctional facility,” said Miller of those conversations. “He knows it has to be a part of the discussion.”
He said he believes the commissioner will be willing to tour the facility, although he said such a visit will be a private one.
Miller and Lang pointed to legislation they authored. Now enacted as law, it requires the state to consider the 1,600-bed facility owned by CoreCivic if the Department of Corrections decides it needs to add more prison beds. The Department of Corrections had sought $141 million for a 500-bed expansion at the Rush City Correctional Facility in 2016. It withdrew that request and has not made another, the legislators said.
Miller and Lang said they believe the time will eventually come when the state will need more prison beds. They said they support sentencing reforms, but even if incarceration rates decline, the state’s overall population continues to grow, they said.
“My number one choice is to have the state purchase it when we need it,” Lang said.
A study by the Department of Corrections estimated it would cost $139 million for the state to purchase and modify the facility for its needs. It has not held inmates since 2010. CoreCivic maintains the facility at the ready and is fully licensed with the state of Minnesota.
Both legislators said they believe the state could acquire the prison for less than the $99 million price asked by CoreCivic. They also believe the department’s cost estimate for preparing the facility for state use was high.
The legislators said CoreCivic has made clear its interest in selling the facility to the state. In the meantime, the company continues to actively market it to hold inmates from other jurisdictions. CoreCivic has made a bid to the federal government to hold inmates for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they said.
Miller and Lang said all they know about the ICE proposal is that the prison would be used only to hold men with criminal convictions awaiting trials. It would not hold women or children as do some ICE detention facilities. Both legislators said they do not believe the facility would be used by ICE if it’s clear that the public opposes it.
Miller said CoreCivic is well aware of the volatility of the ICE detention debate in the country. “If you don’t want it, they are not going to bring it here,’’ he said.
The two legislators said a state purchase of the prison faces its main opposition from the union representing state prison employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
“There is a definite disconnect,’’ Lang said. The state senator said he believes that many of the union members in the Twin Cities do not understand that he and Miller both support state ownership with union jobs in the facility. He believes that many rural union members realize that their proposal supports union jobs, and could help change AFSCME’s opposition to a state purchase.
One of the other big challenges for the facility is that it is impossible to repurpose it from its role as a prison, Miller said.
Yet many in the audience encouraged the legislators to consider it for a new role. They would like to see the facility adapted to offer mental health care for persons serving prison sentences.
The legislators also heard from audience members on the need for child care services, affordable housing and improved access to mental health services in rural communities.