Local organizations oppose reopening of Appleton prison

By Ryan Faircloth / Murphy News Service

Public outcry over racial incarceration disparities may keep a proposal to reopen the privately owned Appleton, Minn. prison behind bars.

The state House of Representatives bill, which recently passed the Public Safety Committee, would reopen the prison.

However, state Rep. Tim Miller (R-Prinsburg) said the prison would no longer be private because the Minnesota Department of Corrections would be leasing it.

The bill has a companion in the Senate, but so far there has been no action on it.

Prairie Correctional Facility, which was closed in 2010 by its owner, Corrections Corporation of America, currently has staff members maintaining the facility and keeping it operational, said Miller, chief author of the bill.

Reopening the prison would help mitigate overcrowding in state prisons, and would also create roughly 200-300 jobs in the Department of Corrections, Miller said.

But local community organizations, such as Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and ISAIAH, strongly oppose the bill because of the negative implications it could have on criminal justice reform.

“If there’s a prison built, there’s going to be political pressure to fill that prison,” said Abou Amara, director of public policy for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. “And so, without a doubt I think … if it is built, it will have a chilling effect on our ability to think through how do we reduce the number of people in prisons.”

Amara said the prison population has almost doubled since the mid-90s, with many of those incarcerated being African American.

“[In Minnesota] African Americans are largely around 5 percent of the population, and the most recent figures that I’ve seen, so these could be a little bit out of date, is that African Americans make up almost 35 percent of those incarcerated in jails and prisons in Minnesota,” Amara said. “So, if you just do the math on there, that’s 7-1.”

Considering the economic impact the prison would have on western Minnesota, Amara said he doesn’t believe the state should resort to prisons for job creation.

“We’re going to solve the economic problem of western Minnesota by actually creating economic opportunity, not by incarceration,” he said.

Lars Negstad, strategic campaigns coordinator for the faith-based organization ISAIAH, said the organization believe it’s morally wrong to profit off of human incarceration.

But aside from the moral concerns, Negstad said ISAIAH believes there are other valid reasons for opposing the prison’s reopening.

“Academic research has shown that prison development … not only doesn’t help struggling rural communities, it actually harms them,” Negstad said.

Even though Negstad is sympathetic to the pain of high unemployment and stressed economies, he said he thinks opening a private prison to help would be “self-defeating from an economic standpoint.”

Criminal justice policy shouldn’t coincide with economic development of a struggling community, he said.

Instead, both Amara and Negstad said they think the Legislature would better serve the community by investing in education and health care.

“I think …when you invest in those types of things, that’s what creates community,” Amara said. “And then all of a sudden you have more people, the population grows, your tax base grows and you’re able to then invest in the things that are going to continue to make that…growth and economic opportunity possible.”

Acknowledging the concerns, Miller said he believes the groups opposing the bill have raised valid questions.

“One thing to understand is that opening this prison does not make room for new prisoners, it just makes room for the existing offenders,” Miller said.

Miller also said he understands the concerns of racial disparities regarding the number of minorities in the state’s justice system, however he doesn’t see how it relates to the prison population problem.

“You know, I’ll take the hits for saying I want the prison open, but I just don’t see the two being connected,” he said.

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