Reopening Appleton on the Legislative Agenda Yet Again

AFSCME Council 5 legislative representative Max Hall and Sgt. Rick Neyssen testify about the need for strategic investment in our correctional system and sentencing reform, rather than reopening the vacant Appleton prison.
AFSCME Council 5 legislative representative Max Hall and Sgt. Rick Neyssen testify about the need for strategic investment in our correctional system and sentencing reform, rather than reopening the vacant Appleton prison.

The forces behind reopening the Appleton prison and giving millions to the infamous private prison company CoreCivic (aka CCA) are at it again.

At the State Government Finance Committee Wednesday, Rep. Tim Miller presented yet another proposal to buy and reopen the long-shuttered Prairie Correctional Facility. This time, he wants the state to sell $139 million worth of bonds to buy and renovate the prison. That’s $57.5 million shy of what’s needed.

“The real intent is to facilitate ownership by the state of Minnesota,” Miller told the committee.

“We’re not asking them to purchase and to open a prison,” said Miller, even though his bill requires the state to buy and rehab the prison. “What we’re saying is at such time as they need to expand their facilities, that they do so with the Appleton option. If they do not have that need at any time in the future, then we understand that.”

Under Miller’s bill HF 3106, regardless of need, the state would already own the vacant behemoth.

“I want to say I’m really disappointed to actually be sitting here and have this issue yet again come before us,” testified ACLU Minnesota organizer Elizer Darris. “Some issues are just issues that should just be finished and moved on so we can look at real and actual practical ways to get deep and devastating issues resolved.”

Buying the prison would cost the state $196.5 million over 15 years, according to independent studies commissioned by the Legislature to assess Appleton’s condition. The costs include:

  • $74.1 million to buy the prison (even though the tax assessed value is about $14 million)
  • $78.7 million to repair the aging facility  
  • $32.9 million to make the prison meet today’s standards. The reports found obsolete locks, fire alarm and radio systems, outdated cameras and numerous blind spots, just to name a few of the problems.

Miller’s bill also doesn’t count the cost of additional staffing due to the prison’s poor design. The independent reports say it would cost $8.6 million more a year to staff Appleton than Stillwater, which houses higher-risk inmates. The prison is 26 years old and has sat vacant since 2010.

“Our members have taken a firm position that leasing the facility or having CoreCivic security guards staffing this facility is something we do not support,” AFSCME Council 5 legislative representative Max Hall testified Wednesday. “We are glad that this bill does not do that. However, we feel that other options ought to be exhausted prior to spending $139 million on a facility that poses several problems for our correctional officers and the Minnesota Department of Corrections.”

Sgt. Rick Neyssen, president of Local 599, says correctional facilities are already strained and short-staffed.

“If the Legislature is unable to fund a proposal for less than 100 corrections officers that we have been requesting for some time now, how do you expect to fund a request for at least 511 security staff, not even including the needed medical, dental, and other healthcare and clerical staff needed to run a prison facility?”

Neyssen pointed out the dangers posed by a prison so far away from the special teams that respond to riots. As an alternative, he urged further sentencing reforms and support for Gov. Dayton’s bonding proposal to increase bed spaces at a fraction of Appleton’s cost.

The ACLU’s Darris said that rather than rehashing Appleton yet again, lawmakers should look to solutions that are better for our communities and state that dramatically reduce recidivism, education chief among them. He said strong family ties help reduce repeat offending, too. Yet Appleton is three hours each way from the Twin Cities, making it hard for families to visit.

While Appleton officials repeatedly say reopening the prison would lead to economic development, numerous studies show the opposite is true.

“Locating prisons in rural communities has been demonstrated repeatedly to harm those communities,” testified Amy Levad, an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas who researches the ethics of criminal justice. She pointed to several studies that show most new prison employees come from out of county, and that these sites get stigmatized as “prison towns,” making other businesses more likely to leave and less likely to come.

The Committee voted 9-5 to approve the bill and move it to the Committee on Capital Investment. The vote was along strict partly lines, with Republicans for it and Democrats against.