In the Spotlight

News & Features
Go to Session 2004
DocumentSession 2004
DocumentFinance and taxes
DocumentHealth Care
DocumentPublic Safety
DocumentSocial Issues
DocumentSocial Services
DocumentStadium Issues
Respond to this story

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Minnesota prisons filled to capacity
Larger view
Redwood North is one of the buildings that would be demolished if the Faribault prison is expanded. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
State corrections officials say Minnesota's prison system is bursting at the seams. The state's 10 correctional facilities have fewer than 75 empty beds, at a time when the prison population is increasing rapidly. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is asking the Legislature to approve borrowing nearly $95 million to expand two state prisons to address the space crunch. Most of the money would go to the prison in Faribault. Corrections officials say expanding the medium-security prison there would make it cheaper to run and safer for inmates and prison staff.

Faribault, Minn. — The Faribault prison, about 40 miles south of the Twin Cities, used to be a regional treatment center. It's a cluster of about 20 buildings inside barbed wire. Some date back to the early 1900s, others were built in the 1940s.

Larger view
Image Faribault warden Connie Roehrich

Ten buildings are used as living units for more than 1,200 adult male prisoners. Warden Connie Roehrich said the older buildings are full of dark corners that make it difficult for prison staff to monitor inmates.

"Nooks and crannies lots of bathrooms where offenders can go in and assault each other, basement of a building, when our education building -- offenders use that in the evenings, we have had some very serious assaults over there," Roehrich said.

One building, called Redwood North, used to be a hospital for patients at the regional treatment center. It's a four-story brick building that houses more than 100 men. It doesn't look like a typical prison. There are no cells that can be locked at night. Instead, inmates live in rooms that resemble college dorm rooms with two bunk beds, no toilet and no sink. Correctional officer Sheila McShea, who's worked for corrections for more than 20 years, said Redwood and other buildings at Faribault don't work very well as a medium-security prison.

"The dorm situations -- they're not good. There's a lot of personality conflicts, there's incompatibility issues, health issues, hygiene issues that we have to do battle with every day," McShea said. "You try to make the best of it because we can't afford, we don't have the staff time to be moving offenders from one unit to another."

The Corrections Department wants to demolish Redwood and more than a dozen other old buildings at Faribault. If the Legislature approves the idea, five new housing units would be built. They would contain cells that could hold two prisoners each. The cells would have toilets and sinks, and they could be locked at night. The plan would add 701 beds at Faribault, at a cost of nearly $75 million. It's the most expensive project on Gov. Pawlenty's list of bonding recommendations.

Larger view
Image A cell in Redwood North

Corrections officials recommended the Faribault expansion, along with a new segregation unit at the Stillwater prison, before the current debate over sex offender sentencing.

Deputy Corrections Commissioner Dennis Benson said the state's prison population is growing rapidly for several reasons. The Legislature has increased prison sentences for various crimes about 75 times in the past 15 years, and the number of drug offenses has exploded, especially cases involving methamphetamine. Benson says corrections officials analyzed the cost of building a new prison or expanding an existing one. He says it's cheaper to expand Faribault.

"This site has the needed land, acreage that is necessary to accommodate the expansion. And it's at the right custody level," Benson said. "We have about 900 inmates that are actually at a higher custody facility that should be at medium."

Benson said the new buildings would also make Faribault safer and cheaper to operate. Right now, the state pays to heat several buildings on the campus that aren't being used because they're so old, and those buildings would be torn down. Warden Roehrich said once the expansion is completed, the daily cost to house a prisoner in Faribault would be less than $60 a day. Right now, it costs about $80 a day on average to house an offender in a Minnesota prison.

Larger view
Image Deputy corrections commissioner Dennis Benson

Some lawmakers say if the state adds more prison beds, it will need to pay for more staff to supervise offenders. State Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL-Minneapolis) chairs the Senate Health, Human Services and Corrections Budget Committee. Berglin said the Legislature made significant cuts in the corrections budget last year, and hasn't budgeted for inflation increases in the future.

"The idea that you can keep doing more with less is erroneous. Especially in corrections," Berglin said. "It's not safe, it's not a productive way to prepare people who are incarcerated for release. You must remember, most everybody does get released."

Berglin plans to hold a hearing on the Faribault expansion and other corrections issues next week. She said corrections officials have not adequately explained to her how they will pay for increasing prison costs. She said the situation will only get worse if the Legislature increases prison sentences for sex offenders.

News Headlines
Related Subjects