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To fence or not to fence the Shakopee women's prison

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The Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee has no fence, but signs give notice to intruders. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum )
The warden of Minnesota's only women's prison will go before the Shakopee city council Tuesday night to describe plans to expand the prison. The Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee houses 500 women, whose crimes range from murder to theft to prostitution.

There's no fence around the prison, and corrections officials want to build a fence and add 92 beds to the facility. Governor Pawlenty included the plan in his bonding proposal, but many neighbors don't like the idea.

Shakopee, Minn. — It's 11 a.m., and dozens of women in white prison uniforms crowd around the door to the only dining room in the Shakopee prison. The room can hold about a quarter of the prison population, so mealtime takes place in shifts.

"We do three breakfasts, four lunches and four dinners," said Warden Rick Hillengass.

Hillengass said the prison housed 93 women when it opened twenty years ago. That number has more than quadrupled, and the prison is projected to run out of space early next year.

Hillengass said the female inmate population is growing at a much faster rate than male offenders in the state. He said the biggest factor is the increase in drug-related crimes, particularly meth.

To handle the rising number of female prisoners, corrections officials want to add space for another 92 women in the prison's Monahan Hall, where women stay in treatment units called pods.

Hillengass said the expansion will take a year and a half to build, so even if the Legislature approves the project this year, the prison will likely exceed its capacity in the meantime. The prison will then have to rent beds from nearby jails.

Adding 92 beds to the Shakopee prison is estimated to cost around $5 million. It will cost another $5 million to build a security fence around the prison. Right now, there's just a three-foot hedge separating the prison from nearby homes and an elementary school.

But many neighbors think the fence is unnecessary and overpriced. Dave Hart has lived next to the prison ever since it was built on the site of a former cornfield.

"I said, you know, you can build whatever you want there. As long as you take care of it and it looks nice, I have no problem with that. But the day you put a fence up, and make it a prison prison, then I'm gonna yell," Hart said. "And so I'm yelling right now."

Hart said he's never had any problems with the prison inmates, despite the lack of a security fence. The prison grounds look almost like a college campus, and Hart said some Shakopee residents don't even know there's a prison there.

Corrections officials say Shakopee may be the only prison in the country that houses violent offenders without a fence. Warden Hillengass said while there haven't been any major problems with inmates walking away from the prison in the past, he believes the fence is necessary to protect the public. He said the prison population has changed over the years.

"I think that we are seeing women who are very capable of horrendous crimes, and very vicious actions on their own," Hillengass said.

Hillengass said he's also seeing more fights among women in the prison. He said the fence will not only prevent inmates from escaping, but also stop intruders from getting onto prison property.

Corrections officials are proposing to build two fences, which is why the price tag is so high. The outer fence would be 10-12 feet high, with black metal pickets between brick or concrete pillars. Inside would be a chain-link fence with alarms and motion detectors. Hillengass said he thinks the design will be acceptable to neighbors, once they get used to it.

One of the state legislators who represents the area, Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said she understands the neighbors' concerns. But Robling agrees with Hillengass that the fence is necessary.

"If an inmate were to escape, and maybe have someone waiting on the street outside, over the hedge, waiting to pick them up, and they sped out of there to get away, and hit one of the kids coming or going to school, I would feel so responsible for that if I had opposed this fence," Robling said.

Shakopee Mayor John Schmitt is opposed to the fence, and said several city council members agree with him. He said the prison will need city approval before it expands or adds a fence.

Schmitt said it's possible the city council will reject the prison's request, regardless of whether the Legislature approves funding for the Shakopee project.

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