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State to hire contractor to assess potential use of western Minnesota private prison

Legislation calling on the state to purchase the Prairie Correctional Facility did not survive the session, but a bill was approved calling on the state to hire an independent contractor to assess the facility for possible use by the state. Forum News Service file photo

APPLETON - Legislation calling on the state to purchase or lease-to-own the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton did not make it through the 2017 session, but the state is now obligated to take a serious look at the possibility of utilizing the facility.

Legislation approved and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton requires the Department of Corrections to hire an independent contractor to assess the facility and determine what, if any improvements would be required if the state were to house its inmates there. The assessment must be completed by January 15, 2018.

"A baby step forward,'' said Gary Hendrickx of Appleton. He is a Swift County county commissioner and member of the Appleton Option, which has sought legislation to re-open the facility. The 1,640-bed facility has not held inmates since February 2010, but is maintained as a licensed and ready-for-use facility by its owner, CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America.

The Appleton Option announced the recent legislation to supporters on Friday, pointing out that it does not necessarily mean the facility will re-open as a state-run correctional facility. But it calls the legislation a "critical first step'' in providing information towards that goal.

State Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, and State Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, had introduced legislation this session calling on the state to purchase or lease to own the facility to solve overcrowding in the state prisons.

The legislation ran into many of the same obstacles as had been raised two years ago. A coalition of religious and other organizations objected to private corporations benefiting from corrections. The American Federation of State, Municipal, and County Employees also testified against it at the one hearing held on the legislation this session.

Dayton and the commissioner of corrections, Thomas Roy, also have expressed their concerns.

Hendrickx said this legislation at least puts a foot in the door on behalf of those seeking to re-open the prison, and provides the opportunity to show why they believe the prison can benefit the state. "We're doing whatever we can to open some people's eyes,'' he said.

He said he was also pleased to see that the legislation calls on the state to hire an independent contractor to perform the assessment. It helps assure a fair look at the facility's ability to meet state needs, he said.

Lang and Miller have called use of the prison a "common sense'' answer to the state's prison needs. During the legislative session, the Department of Corrections estimated that the state was housing in the neighborhood of 185 inmates in county jails due to a lack of prison space, according to Hendrickx. One year previous, the number of inmates housed in county jails ranged between 300 to 500.

While there has been discussion about sentencing reforms, Hendrickx noted that the state's inmate population is likely to continue to grow on track with the state's population.

Tom Cherveny

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

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