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

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.

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.”

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. 

Want to add your voice?

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

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/22/2016 - 09:57 am.

    Deep Dive

    What, if any, is the relationship between CCA, the House GOP caucus, the GOP bill sponsor, and the Koch-fueled ASLC? The initiatives of state GOP legislators rarely have a local inspiration anymore. Typically, legislation like this originates with industry groups.

    What a cruel joke to play on the citizens of Appleton, to take advantage of their economic insecurities to benefit an out-state corporation.

  2. Submitted by Clete Erickson on 03/22/2016 - 11:49 am.


    “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.”

    Perhaps MN is safer because we are putting in prison those that have committed crimes. We should look at length of sentence on a routine basis but is there a correlation between the amount f crime and the size of the incarcerated population?

    “”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.””

    Where does personal responsibility come into play? Is anyone making anyone commit a crime? If someone commits a crime shouldn’t they be held accountable? We are not choosing to commit crimes the criminals are but the author is stating we are choosing to take a wage earner or parent out of the home when it is a person’s actions that bring about the end result.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/22/2016 - 12:26 pm.

      Get The Lead Out

      It has been proven that crime has not dropped due to longer sentences, stop and frisk, or the broken window theory. Crime has dropped because lead was removed from gasoline in the 70’s.

      In every country around the world, there is a 20 – 25 year lag between the removal of lead in gas and a drop in the crime rate. This despite various nations banning leaded gas not at the same time, but at many different times. Childhood exposure to lead has been directly tied to a lack of impulse control later in life.

      Want to reduce crime further? Forget the water, the greatest source of lead exposure today is lead in urban soil, the legacy of decades of burning leaded gas. During summer, as the soil becomes dry it increases dust in the air which leads to exposure of urban children to lead.

      The other major source is lead paint on windows and doors in older homes. Spending on reducing those two sources of lead will give us a larger bang for the buck than a prison in the guise of economic development. Although moralizing may make us feel better.

  3. Submitted by Bill Willy on 03/22/2016 - 04:13 pm.

    Predators SHOULD be locked up!

    Corrections Corporation of America: “A Study in Predatory Capitalism and Cronyism”

    Yet another prime example of how the collective reptilian GOP brain works:

    1) Fight tooth and nail to lower taxes (for businesses and wealthy individuals, primarily);

    2) Fight tooth and nail to cut government spending.

    3) Fight tooth and nail to increase the cost of government by doing things like pumping up the prison population by getting yourself elected by scaring people and promising to be tougher on crime than anyone in history; and then

    4) When state government is low on cash (and preferably in a deficit situation) privatize core government services (like Public Safety) and anything else you can so more taxpayer money will flow to the private sector.

    When selling their ideas Republicans always claim the private sector can do the job better, more efficiently and save taxpayers all kinds of money.

    They have no evidence to show that’s true (because there isn’t any) and never answer any questions when confronted with facts that prove the opposite. . . But never mind that because we MUST cut taxes and government spending because there’s a surplus or a deficit and everyone knows the private sector can do the job better, more efficiently and save taxpayers a LOT of money.

    Because Corrections Corporation of America has been in business 30 years (since Reagan days) its worse than dubious practices and (factual) results are well-known to those who follow the private prisons issue:

    They “buy prisons from money-strapped states” then lease them and their “management services” back to states via 20-year contracts that guarantee profitable incarceration levels by “gaming the system with trips through the revolving door, self-dealing and influence peddling.”

    (See: “Predatory Capitalism and Cronyism” above)

    The ACLU had this to say about the situation:

    “Even compared to the breathtaking rate of overall growth in incarceration [over the past 35 years], the rate of expansion of for-profit imprisonment far outpaced the field, accounting for a disproportionate increase in the number of people locked up. In 1980, private adult prisons did not exist on American soil, but by 1990 private prison companies had established a firm foothold, boasting 67 for-profit facilities and an average daily population of roughly 7,000 prisoners. During the next twenty years (from 1990 to 2009) the number of people incarcerated in private prisons increased by more than 1600%, growing from approximately 7,000 to approximately 129,000 inmates.”

    Short of Republicans not being able to get laws like House File 3223 passed into law, companies like Corrections Corporation of America’s biggest fear is the type of changes to sentencing laws Kathleen Cole and others in Minnesota, the U.S. Justice Dept and some members of Congress are (wisely) calling for:

    “CCA knows that it may lose market share if our society gets better and we stop imprisoning so many of our citizens.”

    So, naturally, they will be/are lobbying to inform Minnesota GOP legislators that if they allow — or worse, HELP — society improve, they will lose business!

    And because the GOP is all about doing whatever Business wants done because Republicans believe Predatory Capitalism is what Minnesota, America and the rest of the World needs as much of as it can get, they ALWAYS vote against things like sentencing reform and, as HF 3223 clearly shows, they ALWAYS vote FOR things like making the Law say the state of Minnesota SHALL contract with one of America’s worst for-profit (and, as Frank mentioned, out-state) corporations to provide one of MN’s core government (Public Safety) functions the government does a great job of providing on a strict as it gets non-profit basis.

    Here’s the provision in House File 3223 that would do that:

    “(j) The commissioner, in order to address bed capacity shortfalls, SHALL enter into a contract to lease and operate an existing prison facility with a capacity of at least 1,500 beds located in Appleton, Minnesota.”

    Consider the Source

    Tim Miller is the bill’s chief author, Appleton is in his district (17A) and, as Britt mentioned, because they blew the privatization thing so badly the first time around and have had a White Elephant on their hands ever since, he and his constituents can’t wait for Corrections Corporation of America to come to town and start providing some decent paying taxpayer-funded private sector jobs.

    As this Bluestem Prairie headline and article from last June shows, Tim Miller is a rock solid conservative Republican whose mission in life is to protect us all from government tyranny:

    “In Facebook comment, Rep. Tim Miller compares enforcing buffer strip laws to a police state”

    And then there was last year’s House File 372: Tim Miller was one of three chief authors. The existing law said Minnesotans with conceal carry permits could carry a loaded gun into the state capitol complex IF they notified the sheriff or the commissioner of public safety. Tim Miller’s updated bill said those people would no longer need to notify ANYone that they’d be packin’ because their “application for permit [to carry] constitutes notification, as required.”

    Apparently, because he spends a lot of time there, Tim Miller is acutely aware of how important it is for he and his fellow citizens to be armed at the state capitol. And, because he has a deep distrust of the government he actively seeks to remain employed by, he seems to believe it would be a safer place if no law enforcement or government official at the Capitol knew about it.

    Again: When making your decision about which Representatives to vote for next November, consider the “foundational thought process” and two-legged sources of legislation like House File 3223.

    Especially if you live in or near places like Appleton.

    Or, put another way, if you care about Public Safety and the (actual) cost of government, don’t vote for ANYone who votes for House File 3223 (you can look it up in the “Journal of the House – HF 3223” after the House passes it in a few weeks). Minnesota does not need, and should not go anywhere NEAR, private prisons. They have been nothing but Bad News for states that have and anyone who says otherwise ought to have their head checked as soon as they can make an appointment.

  4. Submitted by Bill Willy on 03/22/2016 - 06:13 pm.

    Predictable update

    “Republicans pushed legislation though a committee on Tuesday to re-open a privately run prison in western Minnesota despite repeated interruptions from protesters who briefly halted debate as they pushed lawmakers to instead consider ways to decrease the state’s prison population.

    “The party-line vote came over objections from protesters who argued that black residents would be inordinately housed there and urged lawmakers to instead examine how to reduce the number of Minnesota inmates.

    ” ‘I don’t understand why we think it’s OK to build revenue off of black and brown bodies,’ said Toya Woodland, a Roseville minister who helped lead protesters’ disruptions. . .

    “DFL lawmakers have pushed to expand a looming set of reductions to major drug sentences that could free up hundreds of prison beds in the next decade. But Republicans, who control the House, have vowed to block them. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has suggested earmarking millions of dollars to expand existing prisons rather than re-open Appleton’s facility or build new ones.”

    “Vowed to block them.” My my my. Kind of a cold strange group Vow to take, no? But that’s the Republican way, I guess.

    As mentioned the bill passed out of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance committee on a straight party line vote: Republicans for, Democrats against.

    Related to “considering the source” while thinking about who to vote for in November, here are the Republicans on that committee and a link to the committee’s membership page:

    Tony Cornish, Brian Johnson, Jerry Hertaus, Jeff Howe, Kathy Lohmer, Eric Lucero, Jim Newberger, Marion O’Neill, Duane Quam and Nick Zerwas. (Mildly interesting that Tim Miller isn’t on that committee but is the bill’s author.)

    It should also be noted that Democrats (Deb Hilstrom, I believe) introduced an amendment that would ban Minnesota from using private prisons which, of course, Republicans voted down.

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/22/2016 - 08:07 pm.


    One example of an “extreme sentence for a minor crime” would be helpful. As a probation officer told me: “We don’t want people in jail”. Our court system works tirelessly to keep criminals from going to jail.

    Good point by the commenter about there being less crime because the criminals are behind bars, it makes too much sense to be believed by most people.

  6. Submitted by Chris Sigurdson on 03/22/2016 - 09:37 pm.

    against CCA

    Thank you for the excellent article and forum for discussion.
    I worked in a federal medical center (prison) for many years. The private prisons consistently offered a bad level of medical care and then shipped costly medical patients to us at great expense. All of which went on the federal dollar, making the private prisons look less expensive. So don’t be fooled by cost saving claims. It is a bad economic alternative as well as moral.

    Of course the debate ignores the biggest issue, which is why we have so many inmates. It is our policy, not our people! Creating more expensive prison space allows bad policy on unnecessary incarceration of people with non-violent, socially undesirable behavior to continue. (What is and is not socially undesirable and to whom is another issue.) There are alternatives to incarceration that involve community programs and restorative justice. That is the economic choice as well as the moral one.

    If this bill passes with so much well reasoned public and professional opposition, shame on us. I anticipate there will be a backlash in November.

  7. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/23/2016 - 12:40 am.

    Totally biased piece

    Here are some the arguments you missed in your badly slanted article.

    Overcrowding of prisons is a very serious problem with no solution in sight. One can assume that it is harder to do real rehab in an overcrowded prison. With more violence generated by close quarters, one can assume average longer sentences that just increased the problem. What is your solution until the future criminal code significantly reduced numbers? Do you want court mandates early release as they have had in California? Is Dayton going to shorten hundreds of prisoners? No solution, and we violate Minnesota’s high standards, just as we have for sex offenders. Overcrowding can also cause riots and deaths? Still want to ignore the problem?

    Even if the state wanted to focus on this, it is under court order to fix the State Security Hospital sex offender program which it struggles to do.

    All the states prisons are In the more urban eastern part of the state, in communities that have already received a lot from the state. This means that family members of prisoners from NW, WC and SW Minnesota have to drive 100-200 miles each way to see family members. Family visits motivate prisoners not to reoffend, so prisoners from those parts of the state are disadvantages.

    The article presents the lease as the only option, when purchase is a better option. Appleton is newer than Stillwater or St. Cloud. CCA has a useless asset and if the Democrats propose purchase at a rock bottom price, but refuse to accept a lease, all the problems of a private operator go away. All union jobs with job protection for workers. If the state wants to remodel older prisons, it had more places to put them. And a lease has no longterm job benefit, as the prison will close again when the lease runs out.

    Fact is that having a prison owned by the state in the western half of the state is something the DFL could do for Minnesota small towns, not leaving behind one half of the state. If Democrats don’t do small things like this that are a big help for a struggling part of the state, they should remove the Farmer Labor part of their name because they only visibly take care of urban and suburban Minnesota.

    Final thought – should the imprisoned members of the Red Lake tribe be housed in metro facilities? Put people in the kind of communities they will return to and their children can easily visit or even live. All communities of color matter.

    • Submitted by Chris Sigurdson on 03/23/2016 - 11:05 am.

      early release vs buying a white elephant

      Your thought of buying at a low price rather than leasing makes some sense to me. Creating state jobs with state standards. But I imagine it will become a burden to the state as well when we finally get on top of our over-incarceration. Unless it can be made into a non-prison facility.
      However, releasing non-violent inmates to community corrections makes more sense to me as an immediate fix and using the money to enhance community corrections programs — still jobs and dollars — where the inmates release (hopefully home area.) That would address the non-metro areas as well.

  8. Submitted by Bill Willy on 03/27/2016 - 12:58 pm.

    “Did we know we were lying? Of course we did.”

    Heard an NPR interview this morning with Dan Baum who wrote an article for Harper’s that included an interview with Richard Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, John Ehrlichman, who said:

    ” ‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’

    “Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.”

    Obviously, millions or billions of MN taxpayer “Public Safety” dollars (police, courts, more and overcrowded and more prisons and probation management) and the incalculable cost of the destruction of thousands of Minnesotans’ lives (most of them black and Native American) need to be included in the list of consequences that (alleged) lie spawned.

    And, of course, the “relatively minor side-consequence” of felons not being able to vote.

    The NPR interview with Dan Baum:

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