Corrections Fights on Against Privately Owned Prisons

Corrections Sgt. Brian Lauwers (left) listens as Sgt. Rick Neyssen tells legislators why going into business with CCA (now CoreCivic) is like doing business with the devil.
Corrections Sgt. Brian Lauwers (left) listens as Sgt. Rick Neyssen tells legislators why going into business with CCA (now CoreCivic) is like doing business with the devil.

A bill that would make the state do business with private prisons is back again at the Minnesota Capitol.

House File 1510 would require the Department of Corrections to lease or buy a private prison in Appleton owned by CoreCivic (what the Corrections Corporation of America is now calling itself).

Correctional officers and community members testified Tuesday before the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. They asked lawmakers to stop CoreCivic from gaining a foothold in Minnesota.

The House committee voted down an amendment by Rep. Debra Hilstrom Tuesday to ban private prisons. All 10 Republicans voted against the ban, and all 6 DFLers voted for it. HF 1510 was laid over for possible inclusion in the House omnibus bill, even though the Department of Corrections has repeatedly said it doesn’t want or need the Appleton prison, and Gov. Dayton has vowed to veto it. AFSCME is working to stop the bill in the state Senate.

 “We don’t want to work for a corporation that drives down our wages, benefits and retirement security,” said Sgt. Rick Neyssen, president of AFSCME Local 599. He said fighting CCA is about much more than protecting a good union job that provides for workers’ families.

“Criminal justice is a core responsibility of government,” Neyssen said. “Public workers should be protecting public safety … It’s immoral to profit from locking people up. It has nothing to do with justice. It’s all about corporations making billions from human misery.”

Numerous investigations have documented CCA abuses, including:

  • Facilities that are so understaffed, they’re controlled by gangs
  • A lack of sufficient medical care
  • Guards committing rape
  • Toilets without running water
  • Worms in food
  • Offering inadequate (if any) rehabilitation programs, or treatment for mental illness and addiction
  • High staff turnover and low morale

CCA’s reputation is so bad, the company rebranded itself CoreCivic.

Corrections officers support a ban on private prisons.
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Sgt. Brian Lauwers knows about this poor reputation firsthand: Before joining the Minnesota Department of Corrections, he worked for the CCA prison in Appleton.

The AFSCME Local 3607 member said the prison wasn’t well maintained. CCA tried to make the state believe they met all the inspections, but there were problems, he said.

Appleton has a small hospital and police department that wouldn’t be large enough to handle big emergencies at the prison such as tornadoes, power outages or evacuations, he said. The area lacks sufficient medical professionals like doctors, psychiatrists and nurses for a facility that size, too.

Lauwers said understaffing at the CCA prison put inmates, staff and the community in danger.  (Read more about Brian Lauwers' experiences with CCA here.)

GOP Rep. Tim Miller is behind the legislation, along with co-authors including Rep. Tony Cornish, who chairs the House committee that heard the bill Tuesday, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt. Miller said overcrowding in our prisons is expected to get worse, and reopening Appleton is the solution.

But Neyssen said leasing or buying a CCA prison isn’t the answer. Once a lease runs out, CoreCivic is likely to raise the price or try to run the prison.

GOP lawmakers are moving forward without knowing how much buying or leasing the prison would cost, according to Rep. Miller himself and the Fiscal Note, which examines the cost of a bill.

(You can check out the incredibly hefty amounts CCA has donated to lawmakers to keep the idea alive here.)

CoreCivic is claiming the vacant prison is worth $99 million, but it’s only assessed at $14 million. The highest assessed value Bluestem Prairie could find – while the prison was open and running, not sitting empty – was just $42.9 million, and CCA worked to lower that.

The prison is also bigger than the state’s needs, Rep. Hilstrom pointed out. It holds 1,600 people, and there are currently only about 260 inmates overflowing into county jails, according to the Fiscal Note. That’s down from 500 last year.

“We do not currently have a need for it, and we do not want to be in business with a company like CCA,” Hilstrom said.

The real need is to make our prisons safer.  That’s why AFSCME is asking legislators to support Governor Dayton’s bonding proposal, which includes $19 million for a new intake unit at St. Cloud, $5 million to add 60 medical beds at Lino Lakes, and to expand the Challenge Incarceration Program at Togo.

The CCA prison would cost at least $6 million a year to lease plus $30 million to $40 million annually to operate, said corrections Commissioner Tom Roy. Total bonding for corrections would cost less than one year of operating Appleton.

“I want to discourage the notion that the only solution to prison capacity is adding another prison facility,” Roy said. “We have added strategies that are far more cost effective.”

Drug sentencing reform is already reducing crowding, and so are changes in how they’re handling parole violators, Roy said. DOC is also partnering with community groups to establish alternative sentences. There are many empty beds in county jails as an interim solution.

Reopening Appleton isn’t a great idea from a rehabilitative standpoint, either. Appleton is three hours away from the Metro area, making it difficult for families to visit and for inmates to maintain family ties, said Minnesota Public Interest Research Group board member Meghan Hill. That just makes it more likely inmates will reoffend.

She testified as part of a coalition opposing the bill that includes AFSCME and community and faith groups. Minneapolis NAACP head Jason Sole was among those there in support.

Hill emphasized CoreCivic/CCA’s record of human rights violations: “It is time we stop pinning the interests of economically distressed communities against each other,” she testified. “It is time we do better for our communities of color that for so long have been devastated by mass incarceration and countless other forms of institutional racism. And it is time to do better for rural Minnesotans who are hurting, and fighting to regain their sense of home.”

Directing the Commissioner of Corrections to buy a specific facility from a specific vendor is just bad business, said Jim Rubenstein, a Jewish Community Action member and longtime business attorney.

“That’s going to raise the price,” Rubenstein testified. He likened it to going to buy a compact car, and requiring someone to go to a specific dealer to negotiate for an 18-wheeler you don’t need.

“That’s also bad business,” he said. “It makes the state a sucker for a bad deal.”

Our correctional officers and AFSCME thank these DFL representatives who voted in favor of banning private prisons:

  • Debra Hilstrom
  • Raymond Dehn
  • Dave Pinto
  • Jack Considine
  • Jamie Becker-Finn
  • JoAnn Ward

We will hold these GOP representatives accountable who voted against banning prison prisons:

  • Tony Cornish
  • Keith Franke 
  • Matt Grossell
  • Jeff Howe
  • Brian Johnson