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‘Senate inaction’ led to decision on prison closures, corrections chief tells House panel

The state’s top corrections official on Tuesday linked the planned closure of a pair of Minnesota correctional facilities to the Senate’s failure to pass a public safety supplemental budget bill that had previously cleared the House.

Last month, Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell announced the agency would close the state’s two smallest prisons, in Togo and Willow River, in a cost-saving move that would lay off more than 100 employees and transfer roughly 150 inmates to other facilities.

“The closures of these two facilities stem directly from the budget deficiency existing in the [Department of Corrections],” Schnell said during a House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division hearing on state public safety budget issues. “The deficiency results from, really, Senate inaction on the agency’s supplemental budget request.”

Corrections officials said last month the agency is facing a $14 million deficit during the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2021, and a projected $25 million funding gap the following biennium.

Schnell called the decision to close the facilities in Itasca and Pine counties, “the best of a range of bad options,” and told lawmakers it was among the most difficult he has had to make.

 

‘We will try again’

The division walked through draft language of another supplemental budget bill during Tuesday’s hearing that the panel’s chair, Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), said would be considered during a September special session if one is called by Gov. Tim Walz next week.

Lawmakers also heard from a number of corrections employees who stressed the importance of the Togo and Willow River prisons to the state’s correctional system, its inmates, and the surrounding communities that would be impacted by their closure.

Republicans have criticized the agency’s decision. Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge) said the move to close the prisons, which house the alternative, boot camp-style Challenge Incarceration Program, is “a recipe for a 100 percent failure.”

“These programs up in Togo and Willow River, yeah, they’re a little more expensive,” Johnson said. “But we heard what those programs do. They do a lot of things for their communities.”

Mariani said he intended to again hear a supplemental budget bill — despite the Senate’s decision to not take up similar legislation for a vote during a special session in July — and challenged those who want to save the prisons to support it.

“We tried [to pass a supplemental public safety funding bill] back in May and we tried again in July,” he said. “And we will try again, because it matters.”


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