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Don’t buy the arguments for reopening Appleton’s private prison

Overcrowding in Minnesota’s prisons is the result of legislators’ “tough on crime” actions; media shouldn’t frame the solution in terms of rural economics.

This session, Minnesota state lawmakers are going to have to come to terms with a problem they created for themselves: prison overcrowding. Crime rates are down across the state. And yet, more citizens in Minnesota are incarcerated than ever before. State lawmakers are responsible for prison overcrowding, as they have spent the last two decades passing stricter sentencing laws that are the driving force behind prison population growth in Minnesota.

To be clear, our prisons are overcrowded and it’s not because Minnesotans have become more dangerous or less law-abiding. Our prisons are overcrowded because of the policy choices our legislators have made, choosing to pass laws that dramatically increase the time that people serve in prison, even for minor offenses. These laws are great for scoring “tough on crime” political points for lawmakers, but do nothing to make communities safer or rehabilitate people who have been convicted of crimes.

Two solutions to the prison overcrowding problem have been offered to the Legislature this session. First, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has offered its recommendations [PDF] that would lessen the prison population by decreasing the severity of sentences for some offenses. Minnesota has adopted many sentencing guidelines that are dramatically out of step with sentences for the same crimes in other states. These recommendations would move Minnesota sentences closer to the national averages and alleviate the crowding brought on by these wrong-headed policies.

House GOP sees prison as quick fix for overcrowding

House Republicans, however, have rejected these fiscally and socially responsible suggestions and instead have introduced a bill (HF 3223) that would authorize the leasing of a Corrections Corporation of America-owned private prison in Appleton. (The bill will be debated today — Tuesday, March 22 — at 10:15 a.m. in Room 10 of the State Office Building.) They see the CCA prison as a quick fix for the overcrowding problem and have been promoting their proposal as a way to revive the struggling Appleton economy.

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Local news coverage has largely echoed House Republicans’ perspective. MPR News, the Star Tribune, and the Duluth News Tribune have all offered coverage of the issue that frames the decision to lease the CCA prison as both the solution to Appleton’s economic problems and an easy fix to the overcrowding problem. This framing is problematic and makes it difficult for us to understand the political forces at play in the push to re-open the prison.

For example, in a recent profile, Appleton is characterized as a rural town in “an economically fragile region” with few job prospects for local people. For the residents of Appleton, “the prison [is] a permanent job creator to sustain them through the lean farming years — and a lifeline to save the community from stagnation.” Local residents are interviewed and each of them expresses the view that the fate of their town depends on the prison. They need the prison to have “the town become alive again.” The prison “needs to come back” in order to prop up the failed Appleton economy.

We, as readers, are meant to feel sympathy for the residents who have been left behind in the 21st century economy. If we feel sympathy for their economic hardship, then how could we not support opening the CCA-owned prison? Doing so, ostensibly, would solve not only Appleton’s jobs problem, but our prison overcrowding problem as well.

How about the effects on other communities?

What’s remarkable about this piece is what’s absent in its coverage. The plight of Appleton residents is well-documented in the profile. Their interests are presented as legitimate and relevant for consideration when deciding whether the prison should be reopened. And yet, absolutely no consideration is given to the interests of the communities from which the incarcerated come from. The prison is presented as an unmitigated good for the people of Appleton, without even passing consideration of the economic and social effects of reopening the prison for members of other communities.

Incarceration is costly, and not only for taxpayers who are stuck with the ever-increasing tab for more prisons and more guards. When we lock people up for exceedingly long periods of time for even minor offenses, we are choosing to take parents from their children. We are choosing to remove an income-earner from a household. We are choosing to take a community member from their neighborhood. We are choosing to weaken families and communities, so that politicians can send the message that they are tough on crime.

In this framing of the issue, Appleton residents are deserving of our assistance in the form of a “job creating” prison. However, opening the prison is no real solution to the economic problems of Appleton residents. Rural communities are declining throughout the state. Jobs are increasingly located in cities, where diverse economies do a better job of sustaining employment rates for residents. Pinning all of their economic hopes on one or two industries (i.e., prisons and farming) is not a long-term solution.

Illusory economic benefits

Furthermore, social science research over the past 30 years has shown that the supposed economic benefits of prisons in rural communities are illusory. Marie Gottschalk, an expert on prisons and politics in the United States explains,

[R]ural areas … have been the primary site for prison construction since the 1980s. Rural counties with prisons do not have lower unemployment rates or higher per capita incomes than rural counties without prisons. Many of the new jobs created by the prison go to people outside the county where the prison is built. Prisons also fail to generate significant linkages to the local economy, because local businesses are often unable to provide the goods and services needed to operate penal facilities.

As Gottschalk explains, prisons aren’t the economic panacea for rural communities that they are supposed to be. In fact, she notes, “[r]esearch suggests that prison construction might actually impede economic growth in rural areas, especially in counties that lag behind in the number of college graduates, and that prison towns have experienced a greater increase in unemployment and poverty.”

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It is extremely unlikely that the residents of Appleton would get the kind of long-term economic benefits from reopening the prison that they envision. Since that’s the case, the question must be asked: Who stands to benefit from reopening the CCA-owned prison? Certainly not the people of Appleton. And, certainly not the communities from whom the incarcerated are taken.

Who benefits? CCA and lawmakers

Reopening the prison in Appleton benefits two groups and two groups only: Corrections Corporation of America, and the lawmakers who have created the overcrowding problem in the first place. CCA stands to gain a multimillion-dollar contract with the State of Minnesota if the Republican bill gets approved. And lawmakers benefit in that reopening the prison would allow them to evade responsibility for the crisis they have created. Minnesota politicians can go on campaigning on their “tough on crime” credentials, stoking and then exploiting the public’s fear of crime.

Media coverage that portrays Appleton residents as beneficiaries of House Republicans’ bill is misguided. The push to reopen the Appleton prison is based in naked self-interest on the behalf of CCA and law-and-order Republicans in the House of Representatives. If our goals are to reduce the prison overcrowding and revive struggling rural communities, the CCA prison is not the solution. What we need are less extreme sentences for minor offenses, rehabilitation for drug offenders (which is less costly and more successful at reducing recidivism than incarceration), and economic programs that promote the development of diverse and sustainable rural economies — the exact opposite of what House Republicans are pushing at the State Capitol. 

Kathleen Cole, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Science at Metropolitan State University. Her views do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. 

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If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)