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Prisons: Public versus private

As the state grapples with a budget deficit the size of the Grand Canyon this session, lawmakers are charged with filling the gapping hole and creating a balanced budget. Proposed "money-saving" ideas run the gamut from removing bottled water from state agencies to mandatory furloughs. However, one proposal, that recurs nearly every session, creates a stir that almost no other issue can. Privately run prisons.

Most people probably don't care who runs the prisons -- as long as it includes hard labor -- yet few issues highlight the political divide so well.

The Right argues that any enterprise can be run more efficiently by the private sector and prisons are no exception, while the Left thinks that prisons aren't like other businesses and belong solely in the public domain.

Either way you see it, Minnesota prisons are over-crowded and extremely costly to operate.

Earlier this session, the governor proposed an $89 million bonding project for completion of Phase II of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility which includes construction of an additional 400-bed secure residential facility, including space for treatment and life-safety infrastructure.

Taking dangerous predatory offenders off of the street is good, but borrowing millions the state does not have is not so good. So, what's the solution?

In light of the announcement in January that the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn., is closing its doors due to a lack of inmates -- it seems only common sense to explore the possibility of contracting for space instead of starting from the ground up, literally.

Housing a prisoner in one Minnesota's Department of Corrections eight adult prisons costs $89.24 a day (this does not include capital costs). By comparison, the DOC paid $79.15 a day at Prairie.

Built for nearly 1,700 prisoners, Prairie is owned by the nation's largest private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America. State governments from around the country have signed contracts to send inmates to correctional facilities run by Corrections Corporation of America.

Minnesota once had more than 1,000 inmates at Prairie but that number dwindled as Minnesota added cells in its own prison system. Ironically, Prairie's fiercest competitor was also one of its biggest customers.

Since the state helped put Appleton's largest employer out of business, the city stands to lose $1.1 million in revenue that Prairie brought to the community through total taxes and fees paid. The difference makes up nearly 60 percent of the city's budget.

It is also expected that the county will reduce the prison's assessed value when it closes, which would mean less property tax revenue for the city. As a result, the city could lose as much as $200,000 in property taxes.

Prairie's closure comes at a particularly bad time as legislators are desperate to create jobs. Over the past few weeks, both the House and Senate approved a bloated $1 billion bonding bill under the guise of a "jobs bill."

It seems logical then that an effort to keep Prairie open would not only save jobs, but save taxpayer dollars. Yet, Rep. Deb Hillstrom and Sen. Tony Lourey introduced legislation this session (H.F. 2691 and S.F. 2478) that would require prison inmates be housed only in publicly owned and operated jails and prisons. It would also make it illegal to renew the contract with Prairie Correctional Facility or to contract with private prisons in other states.

The real issue is that liberal lawmakers are working to enact a complete prohibition on the state contracting with private prisons, despite its potential to save tax dollars.

What is most troubling is the reasoning behind the restrictive legislation, which is the ever-present influence of unions. In a not-so-shocking move, AFSCME declared "victory" on their Web site when Prairie announced it was being forced to close its doors. It is a safe bet that AFSCME workers are the only people in the state celebrating the loss of nearly 400 jobs.

In 2009, AFSCME members successfully blocked an at-tempt to shut down Moose Lake and transfer its inmates to Prairie -- and their at-tempts to stifle the free mar-ket are just as present in 2010.

AFSCME is lobbying tire-lessly for the bill Rep. Hill-strom and Sen. Lourey intro-duced this session in order to prevent the state from "rent-ing out its responsibilities," even if it would be cost effective for taxpayers.

Anyone voting for a $1 bil-lion bonding bill (a.k.a. jobs bill) that ultimately eliminates private sector jobs in order to preserve union wages, is a hypocrite.

Emily Skidmore Nesse is re-search director at the Taxpay-ers League of Minnesota. She is a graduate of William Mitchell College of Law.