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$196.5 million over 15 years: State gets price tag for buying, upgrading Appleton prison

Tribune file photo The front gate of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton is shown in this undated file photo. A newly released architectural assessment provides costs for the state to purchase, upgrade and staff the facility, or to lease it. The privately owned prison has not held inmates since February 2010. 1 / 3
Tribune file photo Visitors tour the Prairie Correctional Facility prior to a community meeting in Appleton in February 2017 when more than 300 people came out to show support for its reopening. The tour participants are in one of the pods holding cells for 40 inmates. 2 / 3
Tribune file photo Jonathan Burns, with CoreCivic, peers through a gate at a housing area in the Prairie Correctional Facility during a 2016 tour of the shuttered facility in western Minnesota. An architectural assessment has been completed for the legislature that provides costs for the state to purchase, upgrade and staff the prison, or to lease it. 3 / 3

APPLETON — There are now price tags for the state of Minnesota to either purchase, upgrade and operate the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, or to lease it.

A newly released architectural assessment of the facility for the state Legislature determined the total project cost for the state to purchase and upgrade the prison to meet state needs would total $139 million, representing $86,875 per bed for the 1,600-inmate facility.

After 15 years, the total invested by the state including its purchase, construction upgrades and all associated costs would total $196.5 million, according to the report.

The total project cost determined by Klein McCarthy Architects of St. Louis Park is based on a $74.1 million price to purchase the facility from CoreCivic of Nashville, Tennessee. The remaining costs are for repairs, upgrades in technology, and a wide range of improvements to meet state standards — everything from opening more sight lines for security to increasing the number of medical beds, showers and other assets.

The report identifies leasing costs to the state as $98 per offender per day. This cost is based on increases in state staffing but not significant facility upgrades. It points out the cost is well above the $55 per day the state pays to house its inmates in county jails.

A critical issue cited in the report, whether it's through ownership or leasing, is a need to increase staffing levels above what was the case when the prison was operated privately.

"Based on our analysis, the key to deciding whether to purchase and operate the Prairie Correctional Facility will come down to the high security staffing costs due to the PCF layout," stated the report. "If a new facility was designed to the State's needs and requirements, the staff savings shown even to operate as Stillwater does is a difference of $8.6 million/year," stated the report.

To operate the facility in a way that is consistent with other Department of Corrections facilities, the report recommends a total staff of 577, representing $46.7 million in annual costs. At its peak under private ownership, it employed 350 to 370, according to West Central Tribune archives.

Despite the improvements being recommended, the report noted that overall, "the facility condition is in good shape for its age and 24/7 usage." It has not held inmates since February 2010.

The report also pointed out that the assessment did not include a direct comparison to the cost of building a new 1,600-bed facility.

Supporters of reopening the facility in western Minnesota have not had an opportunity to fully examine the 241-page report. Stakeholders are meeting early next week to examine the report and what it means, said Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg.

He is hoping the report provides a clear picture for everyone so the state knows the asset that it represents.

"One fundamental truth is still there," Miller said. "The state of Minnesota has a need. We have an asset out there that can satisfy that need at a competitive cost. (It's) certainly much less expensive than building something new."

Miller does not expect any major legislative action on the facility this session, but said he wants to move the ball forward for the time when the state needs new prison space.

Gary Hendrickx is a Swift County Commissioner and Appleton business owner who has been working with the Appleton Option coalition of supporters to promote the facility's reopening. The city and county employed a firm to assist them in promoting the facility to the Legislature last year.

Hendrickx wants an opportunity to fully examine the report, but said he has initial concerns. It is not an apples-to-apples comparison when the report compares the cost of leasing the facility with county jails. Prisons offer programming to successfully re-introduce inmates to society, as well as recreational and other activities that jails do not, he said.

Hendrickx also pointed out that the report calls for making expensive upgrades and improvements to meet modern standards. Those same standards are not necessarily being met at the state's 10 existing correctional facilities, he said.

Hendrickx said he and other local residents remain committed to helping CoreCivic market the facility to other potential users. The company has submitted a bid to the federal corrections system for use of the facility.

Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, issued a statement Wednesday pointing out that the assessment has been completed. He cited the state's need for more prison beds.

"The facility is in great shape, and I know this is an investment worth pursuing over renting bed space from counties,'' Lang said. "It is important that inmates have access to education, substance abuse treatment, and mental health care prior to their return to society — programming that in most cases is not available in temporary housing."

The Department of Corrections from May to December 2017 housed more than 400 inmates in county jails, according to Sarah Fitzgerald, communications director. As of Friday, the DOC had 337 housed in county jails. Fitzgerald noted the number fluctuates daily. She said the DOC is projecting a need for 850 additional beds by 2023.

The Prairie Correctional Facility was first opened in September 1992 as a 500-bed facility owned by the city of Appleton. It was expanded in 1998 to hold 1,600 inmates under the ownership of Corrections Corporation of America, now CoreCivic. It has not held inmates since February 2010.

Tom Cherveny

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

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