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Minnesota prison kept empty and waiting for inmates for 6 years, 1,640 beds at the ready

APPLETON -- Security cameras keep a constant vigil on silent hallways leading to nearly 400 prison cells, every one empty but kept ready. Books still line the library shelves, weight lifting equipment fills one of the gyms, and barbershop chairs ...

Prairie Correctional Facility
A double-bunk cell is among nearly 800 empty, but maintained cells in the Prairie Correctional Facility. Maintenance staff check each cell once a week, flushing toilets and running the tap water. (TOM CHERVENY | TRIBUNE)

APPLETON - Security cameras keep a constant vigil on silent hallways leading to nearly 400 prison cells, every one empty but kept ready.

Books still line the library shelves, weight lifting equipment fills one of the gyms,

and barbershop chairs wait for the next one up.

“I’m sure one of your questions will also be does it always look like this or did we just clean it up for you to come. This is the way it always is,’’ said Daren Swenson as he escorted two reporters through the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton one week ago.

For six years now, the 1,640-bed prison has been without inmates, but kept ready and waiting for new inmates.


Swenson is vice president of facility operations for Corrections Corporation of America, owner of the vacant, private prison in Appleton. He served as its warden in 2002. He started his career in corrections here as among the first graduates of the prison’s training program when it opened as a 500-bed prison owned by the City of Appleton in September 1992.

Corrections Corporation of America, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, purchased the facility in 1997, and oversaw two major expansions. At one point it employed 365 workers, 86 of whom lived within the City of Appleton, according to information from the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission.

The last inmates left in February 2010.

Six employees remain on site today. Four are corrections officers providing security 24/7. A maintenance technician and supervisor keep the 348,000 square foot complex up to code, making sure it keeps its state licensing.

CCA has continued to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in its upkeep, according to Jonathan Burns, director of public affairs for CCA.

It has upgraded the heating and ventilation systems, repaired the roof, and last year, re-painted much of the building. One HVAC project on the roof last year alone cost $750,000, he said.

“It’s an asset the company owns,’’ said Burns when asked why the company continues to invest in the facility. “Maintaining the value of it and its attractiveness to potential government partners is just a part of responsibly maintaining the asset in general,’’ he said.

CCA has been marketing the private prison to jurisdictions since its closing, but without success.


Now, it’s hoping the state of Minnesota will be interested in leasing the prison and return state inmates to the facility.

Governor Mark Dayton has not included funding for the Appleton facility in his bonding proposal for the upcoming legislative session, and has made known his preference to reduce the number of inmates. Nonetheless, a Swift County task force and area legislators believe the Appleton prison could help address the state’s prison needs, and will be urging the state to lease the facility.

The state would operate and staff the facility with its own, unionized employees, according to the proposal.

That’s not the “private prison model’’ that has generated much of the opposition to state use of the Appleton facility, according to Burn.

He said CCA’s role would be limited to maintaining the facility.

Leasing the facility would give the state time to pursue its own solution to prison overcrowding, whether that means changing sentencing guidelines to reduce the number of inmates or adding cells at existing facilities, according to Burns and Swenson.

CCA has also made known its willingness to sell the Appleton facility to the state, Burns said.

He said CCA believes an existing lease agreement with the State of California at the 2,300 inmate, Cal City facility owned by CCA could be the model for an agreement with Minnesota.


Minnesota currently houses over 500 state prison inmates in county jails due to a lack of space in state prisons.

Jails are designed for short-term detention, Swenson said. Prisons are designed for persons serving sentences. They offer the programming that improves an inmate’s prospects for a successful return to society, he said.

The recent tour was designed to point out the variety of programming and services the facility is equipped to offer. The prison includes a hallway lined by classrooms and a computer lab. It was overseen by a full-time principal and 11 teachers. Seven instructors offered vocational classes and four offered high school equivalency programs.

The prison’s spacious wood working shop remains equipped and ready for licensed education in construction and woodworking trades.

The former Jacob’s Trading Post building remains within the electrified- and razor-wire fence that encloses the prison grounds. In the separate building, up to 200 inmates once worked in a federally certified Prison Industry Enhancement program. They earned minimum wages doing work rangimg from re-packing returned store goods from Wal-Mart to producing hockey jerseys. Room and board, restitution, child support payments and other debts were often taken from their paychecks, according to Swenson.

Inmates also worked within the prison at jobs ranging from the laundry to the kitchen.

A full time medical doctor, dentist, psychologist, RN’s and LPN’s were part of a prison staff providing 24/7 health care. The prison has a 26-bed inpatient, chemical dependency treatment center. It offered a full range of programming for drug and alcohol addiction.

At one point, 216 community volunteers assisted with various programs addressing inmates’ spiritual needs and drug and alcohol dependency issues, according to Barbara Seidl, an assistant warden with CCA.


The prison holds a chapel and an outdoor, sweat lodge for Native American religious practice.

Putting it all back to work could be done as quickly as the state could assemble the staffing it would need, according to Burns.

Burns said CCA’s pitch to the state of Minnesota comes down to this: Leasing the Prairie Correctional Facility offers an immediate solution that could alleviate the pressures the state is facing while it considers how to address its prison needs long-term. “We’re simply responding to interest, willing to make the facility available in the way that best suits the needs of the state if that’s what elected officials in the state choose to do,’’ he said.


Dayton rejects plan to reopen Appleton prison


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