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Sun Tribune Editorial

Kudos to Morris City Officials for having a discussion on the possibility of the state leasing the privately owned prison in Appleton.

The discussion touched on several good points on a possible state use of the prison. It's also a discussion that needs to continue to happen in the Legislature and amongst city, county and other public officials in the region.

On the surface re-opening the 1,600 bed prison in Appleton seems like a really great idea. The prison would be used, jobs would return and the region would get an economic boost. Also, the state would not need to spend what's been reported as $141.5 million on a 500-bed expansion to the state prison in Rush City.

But, Morris City Attorney Aaron Jordan and council member Kevin Wohlers brought up some downsides to the state leasing a privately owned prison.

Jordan has an ethical and moral problem with the state using a privately owned prison. He's not comfortable with the state leasing from a company that makes money on the misery of others. He'd rather the state buy the vacant prison.

Wohlers said he agreed with Jordan.

City officials also mentioned how union jobs would fit within a privately owned facility that in the past had non-union jobs.

The state should buy the Prairie Correctional Facility because in simple terms, the state's justice system places inmates in prison. The state has a responsibility to operate and maintain prisons for those inmates. Again, those are simple terms. An inmate certainly has a large role in decisions and circumstances that lead to prison.

It should make us all at least slightly uncomfortable to know CCA is making money off inmates from Minnesota. Prisoners who are still the brother, the son, the uncle or the father of other Minnesotans. It should be difficult to justify making money from someone who is incarcerated. It seems more than a little exploitive.

But if the state buys the prison, what then, are the ramifications?

Most jobs that would return to the prison would be union jobs. Many of those union jobs would likely pay a higher starting wage than most manufacturers and other employers in the region do.

While some could argue that wages in the region need to increase wages but at what cost? Swift County's unemployment rate is around 3.6 percent while Stevens County's rate is around 2.4 percent and Pope's, 2.3 percent, Big Stone's, 3.3 percent.

Dozens of employers already say they can't get enough workers to fill existing jobs? How much more difficult will finding those needed employees be if a prison with higher starting wages opens?

And what does re-opening a prison for 500 inmates solve in the state's justice system?

Minnesota had 11,000 people in prison in 2012, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In 1978, Minnesota had fewer than 3,000 people in prison.

Analysis by the National Acadamies Press which uses Bureau of Justice and other agency statistics, the Prison Policy Initiative and various news reports including a Feb. 7, 2016, story in the Star Tribune show the significant increase in the prison population isn't just because more people are committing more crimes. A major reason is that laws such as drug offenses, now carry harsher sentences that often require prison time. People serve more time now for a crime than 25 or 30 years ago.. Are we safer because more people are in prison? Do prison terms address the often multi-faceted reasons crimes are committed? Reasons that include stealing to pay for drug habits of individuals who self medicate for mental health reasons.

Crime and punishment isn't simple. There are good reasons for the state to seriously consider buying the prison in Appleton. There are also good reasons to consider why adding another 500 beds to the system may not be the best choice for the state or the region.

Kudos to Morris City Officials to discussing the topic. Let's hope the discussion doesn't end there.