With Minnesota prisons full, panel seeks answers

Tom Roy, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and Terry Carlson, Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, testified before a task force studying the prison population. Tom Scheck | MPR News

A task force of state lawmakers, public safety officials and criminal justice professionals is studying ways to handle Minnesota’s growing prison population.

The state Corrections Department says prisons are full. The state is paying county jails to house 516 inmates because space is so tight.

Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy told the task force Friday he wants the Legislature to spend $141 million to build a new prison housing unit in Rush City to meet demand.

“So lots of the states that have shown smaller growth rates have been reducing prison populations by removing the low hanging fruit in those states,” Roy said. “Minnesota removed the low hanging fruit years and years and years ago.”

Some task force members wondered whether the state should implement lighter prison sentences or increase funding for chemical and mental health treatment to help address the problem.

“There are some people who are a long term threat to public safety,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. “But I also think there’s a substantial portion of those who are behind bars that we can deal with more effectively and less expensively.”

But that could be a tricky balance especially with every seat in the Legislature on the ballot in 2016. Changes in criminal justice laws sometimes end up as a campaign issue – especially when a lawmakers could appear to be soft on crime.

Republicans in the Minnesota House didn’t seem convinced that reducing prison sentences for what many have called “low level crimes” is a viable option.

“It’s a low level crime until they break into your house,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River. “It’s a low level methamphetamine crime until they are supporting their habit by stealing your identity or stealing thousands of dollars in checks in your name and your credit is ruined.”

One other option discussed involves leasing space at an empty prison in Appleton, Minn. Swift County officials are urging the Dayton Administration and the Legislature to enter a contract with the Corrections Corporation of America, which owns the prison.

“If the Department of Corrections is going to build or make additional prison space available, we’d like to see it in this currently vacant facility rather than making a $141 million capital investment,” said Swift County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver.

Pogge-Weaver also said it makes sense to lease prison space if the goal of the task force is to reduce the overall prison population. But the current trend lines show Minnesota’s prison population increasing by 6 percent between 2015 and 2022 leaving some to wonder if building new units or a new prison is a better option.

“If the long-term trend lines don’t change, it might be cheaper to buy than to lease,” said Latz.

Leasing the Appleton prison could also present other political problems. Even though Swift County officials are lobbying the Legislature to run the facility with state employees, labor unions have opposed any expansion at Appleton.

Others say the state should not enter into a contract with a private company that makes money off of housing inmates.

  • Kansan

    Any arrangement that might be made with CCA will be at its heart corrupt.

    One has to look no further than Idaho, where campaign contributions resulted in gross lack of oversight and governmental complicity in taking the taxpayers for many millions, via deliberate understaffing and fraudulent time cards. White supremacist prisoners were effectively running the facility. After allowing CCA to operate a state prison for a decade, the state finally had to take control back from the corporation.

    A few of the many such examples might be helpful to examine.

    CCA had a riot at its Beattyville, Kentucky prison and a huge number of staffers, paid less than $8 an hour, quit. Appleton was closing, so CCA shipped its guards to KY, paid for their housing and gave them $14 an hour, almost twice what it was paying the locals.

    That was easy. While KY guards received fast food worker wages, CCA’s top exec was making almost $2 million a month.

    In Appleton, CCA guard Andrew Lemcke borrowed a gun, brought it home his wife’s licensed day care, where it was illegal, then shot her through the chin, blowing off the top of her head. A CCA-friendly grand jury failed to indict him.

    Only when her parents protested the lack of justice, and were searching for their granddaughter, did they find the child and pressed the grand jury to indict. He had fled the jurisdiction and was working for CCA in Florence, Arizona. He was convicted on his return, but only served two years for the homicide.

    The investigation interviewed many other staff, some of whom had been told by the victim that she believed her husband might kill her, as she said she was turning him in for insurance and workers compensation fraud, but also revealed a widespread culture of social dysfunction.

    In Tulsa, Oklahoma, CCA took over the county jail with promises of substantial savings. Instead, it was plagued with escapes, suicides, mistaken releases and deferred maintenance that compromised safety and substantial cost overruns. A program manager was found to have been hired straight out of prison in Alabama where he had done 17 years for murdering a UofA football player. He floated around their system until he was convicted of sexual abuse of women prisoners. The county finally took the prison back and saved hugely in the process, though it spent prodigious amounts to repair the facility it had entrusted to CCA.

    That isn’t a headache Minnesota needs.

    • Rich Sjerven

      I worked as a Corrections Officer and made 15 dollars an hour. The starting wage when closed was 12.50. Quit making up stories. Also Andrew and Nicole did not even work at the prison at the time of the murder. Andrew worked for her dads paint store in Montevideo.

      • Kansan

        Thanks for your response.

        I think the reason they didn’t use Appleton for California inmates was because they were getting away with paying guards in Kentucky $7.65-$8.35/hr. Mississippi was down around $10, ditto central Oklahoma (except Sayre). So they had a much bigger profit margin by leaving it closed and using cheaper labor forces.

        I have almost 200 pages of investigative files from the MN Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on the case. He sure as hell still was working there, and maybe was working two jobs if he was at her dad’s store. There were many interviews done with other guards included, as the two were dong a lot of partying with them and some told them that Nicole had said she thought he might kill her.

        I know he was also working undercover for the local police. Had he been “walked off” just before he killed her? Was his prior bust common knowledge?

      • Kansan

        Thanks for your response.

        I think the reason they didn’t use Appleton for California’s or other inmates was because they were getting away with paying guards in Kentucky $7.65-$8.35/hour, between 2005 and 2014. Mississippi was around $10, ditto central Oklahoma (except Sayre). So they had a much bigger profit margin by leaving it closed and using cheaper labor forces.

        I have almost 200 pages of investigative files from the MN Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on the case. Andrew had been fired from her dad’s flooring store, because Gary was afraid he was engaged in Workers Comp fraud. There were many interviews done with other guards included, as the two were dong a lot of partying with them and some told them that Nicole had said she thought he might kill her.

        In the interviews, it was mentioned that Andrew worked at Prairie View, but none said he wasn’t working there at the time of the murder.

        I also read (not in the BCA reports) that he was working as an informant for local law enforcement. Had he been “walked off” just before he killed her? Was his apparent prior bust common knowledge, if that info was right?

        The BCA did dozens of interviews and the one about the “being with murderers at work” and the ring was very interesting. It stood out from all the rest. His attorney would have seen that and likely shared it with him.

        Many referred to people who worked with him at Prairie View. Some are unclear. Did he quit Prairie View and did they go to Cal City, then return to Appleton to work again, before her death? Did he work for CCA at Cal City?

        Why do you think CCA hired him back, with that case still open? The BCA did interviews with sources every year from 2004 to 2010.

  • Michael

    “It’s a low level methamphetamine crime until they are supporting their habit by stealing your identity or stealing thousands of dollars in checks in your name and your credit is ruined.”

    Sounds a lot like fear mongering to me. I don’t see why we shouldn’t take a multifaceted approach like making some adjustments to our penal codes, enhancing programs like drug court and restorative justice, and increasing prison facilities only as needed.

    As for contracting private corporations to staff prisons – that looked like a deal with the devil to begin with.