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Proposals could be submitted for private prisons

published 3/14/2011
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Closed in 2010, the privately owned Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton could once again house inmates, under a bill sponsored by Rep. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake).

HF939 would allow the commissioner of administration to seek proposals from private entities to operate correctional facilities.

“This is a policy to allow private prisons to be part of the solution to save money and house inmates. … The idea is how can we have a private-public mix of corrections and potentially save the taxpayers’ money,” Westrom told the House Civil Law Committee.

The bill was approved and referred to the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee. There is no Senate companion.

The western Minnesota correctional facility is owned by Corrections Corporation of America and previously housed inmates from Washington and Minnesota. It closed when the states had room in their own facilities to house inmates.

Under Westrom’s bill, a committed person could be placed in either a privately run facility or one operated by the Department of Corrections. Current law specifies that the person be placed in a state-run facility. To be considered, a private institution would have to house prisoners at a cost at least 5 percent below the current per diem of the Department of Corrections.

The lack of other criteria, including program availability, concerns Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park). “This bill misses the mark. … As a taxpayer I want two things – a prison that reduces recidivism and keep the bad guys and gals locked up. Why is there nothing in your bill about that?”

She successfully amended the bill to include a provision that recidivism statistics be part of the proposal request.

Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson) thinks the bill is an attempt to privatize prisons.

Westrom said the Department of Corrections could submit a proposal if it met the 5 percent threshold.

Hilty countered: “You know as well as I do how savings can take place — employing fewer staff, paying them as little as possible. And there is another possibility, you could cut back on how you treat prisoners … quality of food, medical treatment.

David Crist, deputy commissioner for the Department of Corrections Facility Services Division, said the state had no complaints about the services and programs provided to inmates when they were housed at the Appleton facility.

- Lee Ann Schutz

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