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Anxiety levels running high in Appleton

An overflow crowd filled the Appleton Civic Center on Friday morning as residents, many of them employees at the Prairie Correctional Facility, expressed their fears to state legislators over a Department of Corrections proposal to move Minnesota inmates to Faribault. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

APPLETON -- Anxiety levels are running high in Appleton, where workers at the Prairie Correctional Facility are fearful that a proposal to transfer inmates to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault will cost them their jobs.

"Devastating'' is how Appleton Mayor Ron Ronning, himself an employee of the private prison, described the consequences to his community should the facility be closed or mothballed. The mayor was among well over 120 people, most of them employees of the facility, who packed the Appleton Civic Center on Friday morning for a town meeting hosted by State Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, and State Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock.

Mayor Ronning said he feared that Appleton and the surrounding rural area could see a major exodus of jobs and suffer the economic strife that gripped it during the farm crisis of the 1980s, when businesses shuttered their windows and homes were left vacant.

The 1,600-bed Appleton facility is currently housing 542 inmates from Minnesota and another 525 from the state of Washington, according to Tim Wengler, its warden. The state of Washington has been slowly reducing its number of inmates.

Joan Fabian, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, has proposed moving the Minnesota inmates at Prairie Correctional Facility to Faribault, which has recently been expanded by 80 beds and is being remodeled. It would continue to use the Appleton facility on an "as needed basis,'' according to Kubly.

The loss of the Minnesota inmates would force Corrections Corporation of America, owner of the Appleton facility, to pare its staffing accordingly, Wengler told the Tribune. He said CCA is working aggressively to contract prisoners from other states, but acknowledged that it is proving difficult.

It is currently negotiating with Alaska, but he noted that nearly every state is facing serious budget deficits and looking at ways to cut costs.

The Appleton prison currently employs 269 people, down from a high of 370 positions. It has been paring its work force through attrition, and has not hired since last July, according to Prairie Correctional Facility officials.

The Department of Corrections has provided testimony at the Capitol claiming that moving inmates to Faribault would save money, according to Kubly. Information provided by the department indicated that it costs Minnesota $77.11 per day to house an inmate in Appleton, when transportation and other costs are added to the daily contract cost with the private facility. The DOC claims it can house inmates at Faribault for an average of $55.38 per day.

Those numbers were challenged at the town meeting. Swift County Commissioner Gary Hendrickx told the legislators that the DOC's annual report for 2008 showed that its average inmate costs at Faribault were just over $109 per day.

Kubly said that he has met with Fabian, who said the DOC's figures comparing costs at Appleton and Faribault are the "marginal costs'' and do not include all of the fixed costs.

Appleton prison officials said the state is saving money by using the private facility, while inmates are receiving services every bit the equal of that offered by the state system. Wengler told the Tribune the state can save $25 million a year by keeping its inmates in Appleton.

Kubly and Falk said they would work to arrange a meeting between Fabian and Prairie Correctional Facility officials so that those points can be made.

Kubly said he will also be introducing legislation that would require the state to give preference to keeping inmates in Appleton. But he and Falk cautioned that it may be difficult to obtain support from a majority in both chambers for such legislation when the DOC claims it can save money by moving inmates to Faribault.

"We can't be here if we don't have this facility,'' said Shelley Koski, a mental health professional at Prairie Correctional Facility. She told the legislators she had moved to Appleton for her position. She and others warned that they would have no choice but to leave the region for employment if they lose their jobs at Prairie Correctional Facility.

Ronning said the repercussions of those job losses would be felt well beyond Appleton. The facility's employees come from communities as far away as Willmar. They represent an estimated $45 million in economic activity to the region.

The Prairie Correctional Facility employees are parents to 112 students enrolled in area schools, including 90 at the Lac qui Parle Valley High School in rural Madison. The facility also pays more than $475,000 annually in property taxes, according to information presented at the meeting