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Frustration in Appleton over latest prison salvo

A view of one of the pods in the Prairie Correctional Facility. Owner CoreCivic has maintained the prison and kept it ready for occupancy since its closing nine years ago. West Central Tribune file photo.

APPLETON — There's frustration in Appleton over the latest salvo in the debate over the shuttered Prairie Correctional Facility, but the community remains committed to urging legislators to support a state purchase of the facility, according to Dan Tosel, the city's new mayor.

Tosel said the community is working with local legislators and is hoping for an opportunity to make its case for a state purchase during this legislative session.

 

He said the community is frustrated that House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, introduced legislation that would prohibit the Department of Corrections and counties from housing inmates in facilities that are not owned and operated by the state, a local unit of government, or a group of local governments.

State Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, charges that the legislation is an attempt to make the Appleton facility "obsolete and unable to operate in any way." Miller said he is worried that it is part of an effort to take the facility out of the equation and open the way for any new prison construction to be located in or closer to the metropolitan area.

Miller and State Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, have introduced legislation that would allow the state to purchase or lease the 1,600-bed facility owned by CoreCivic.

It has not held inmates since February 2010. It was the largest employer in Swift County with more than 300 jobs when it was operating at capacity.

Lang called Winkler's proposed legislation a "shot across the bow.'' He does not believe it will advance far in the legislative process. He and Miller said they question the legality of what Winkler is attempting with the bill.

The local legislators said they remain hopeful that the state will someday purchase and operate the facility. The Department of Corrections has indicated it is not seeking additional prison space at this time, but its long-term projections show a need for more space, Miller said.

Mayor Tosel said Appleton residents also remain hopeful that the state will consider the purchase of the facility. Its purchase is the most economical way for the state to meet its needs and best serve taxpayers, he said.

The state should buy it or, at the least, provide an option for its use in some manner, according to the mayor. "We're part of the tax base out here too,'' Tosel said.

He charged that legislators are ignoring the needs of rural, western Minnesota. "It seems like our hands are tied. We don't have the votes out here in western Minnesota."

CoreCivic remains interested in either selling or leasing the facility to the state, according to Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for the company.

"Minnesota faces the challenge of significant prison overcrowding, and we've offered to help address that challenge by leasing or selling the Prairie Correctional Facility, which would be operated by state employees under either scenario," stated Gilchrist in an email. "This facility would provide a means to significantly increase opportunities for inmate rehabilitation and re-entry programming, particularly for those individuals currently held in local jails while they await placement in the state system."

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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