Sunday, April 20, 2014

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Lawmaker's bill would stop state contracts with private prisons
Corrections officials say it's getting harder to find space for prisoners in Minnesota. To alleviate the pressure on state prisons, the Department of Corrections already sends some inmates to a private facility in western Minnesota. But one state lawmaker thinks contracting with private prisons, like the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, isn't good use of state money. Rep. Debra Hilson, DFL-Brooklyn Center, has introduced legislation that would prohibit the state from doing business with private prisons.

Collegeville, Minn. — The Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton currently houses 200 prisoners from the state of Minnesota. It's the only private prison in the entire state. The Department of Corrections has signed a deal to lease up to 1,700 beds there in coming years.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, doesn't think that's a good idea. Hilstrom says in recent years lawmakers have voted to increase prison time for drug and sex offenses. But lawmakers haven't found the money to build more prisons for the increasing number of inmates. Hilstrom sees sending inmates to a private prison as an inadequate and temporary fix. One reason Hilstrom thinks the contract should be reconsidered, is that it gives the Appleton prison facility the right to refuse inmates with behavior or health problems.

"It's our responsibility to make certain we have a place for the prisoners to go. It doesn't do you any good if you have a prisoner that needs to be housed and they show up and they say, 'Sorry we don't have any room for you'," Hilstrom said.

Prison officials say they only take inmates the Department of Corrections considers medium security, and those don't include prisoners with health or behavior issues.

Hilstrom says her legislation is a way to force a public debate on prison funding.

Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Madison, is in favor of discussing those issues. The Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton is in Peterson's district. But he says contracts between the state and private prison shouldn't be cut off while lawmakers debate the best place to put prisoners.

"Just because you want to have a conversation about it doesn't make it valid to shut down. The Department of Corrections needs to be in the agreement, because they don't have enough room to send prisoners anywhere else," Peterson said.

According to Peterson, Minnesota prisons are full, and the proposed legislation would be a burden on the Department of Corrections.

DOC Commissioner Joan Fabian agrees. Fabian says using both private and state-run prisons is a good system.

"We don't have the option of saying no to the court. When they sentence a dangerous offender to prison, it's our obligation to insure that he's securely housed. We can't put him on a waiting list. So this is the only option we have," Fabian said.

Community leaders in western Minnesota are afraid jobs will disappear if the bill passes. Civic leaders say the prison is Appleton's economic bedrock. It has a payroll of nearly $9 million a year, employing nearly 400 people in a town of 2,200.

The legislation to end the state relationship with the prison wouldn't shut it down. It also has contracts with Wisconsin, North Dakota and Washington state. But prison officials say losing Minnesota inmates likely would mean job cuts.

Some say Rep. Hilstrom's proposal is personal. They say she's unhappy that the prison in Appleton is non-union. She denies that and says her effort is about what private prisons offer the state for its money.

Hilstrom has requested a hearing on her bill in the house. There's an identical bill in the state Senate. It was authored by Sen. Thomas Bakk, DFL-Cook.

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