Minnesota's prison overcrowding raises a dreaded name: CCA

Making a profit off prisoners may sound distasteful, but truth is companies have been doing it in Minnesota for a long time.

Making a profit off prisoners may sound distasteful, but truth is companies have been doing it in Minnesota for a long time.

Minnesota’s prisons are full. So full that 516 inmates have been pawned off to county jails.

A legislative task force is now looking at what it’ll take to remedy the overcrowding – build a new facility in Rush City for $141 million, or reopen the abandoned private prison in Appleton that is still owned by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

The very mention of the dreaded CCA, America’s largest for-profit corrections company, sends chills down the spines of many, including local religious leaders. With good reason. The very thought of making a buck off human detention is a dystopian sort of philosophy. CCA has made it so much worse by amassing a trail of horror stories of cutting corners in order to do just that.

In 1996, guards at a CCA prison in South Carolina hogtied, maced, and beat a 14-year-old inmate who came away with lifelong psychological issues. Between 2005 and 2010, CCA ran a Kentucky women’s prison with 81 percent male staff who raped prisoners at rates four times higher than the state-run prison. In 2010, the Associated Press released a video catching guards watching passively as an inmate was beaten unconscious, failing to step in even as the attacker took a rest in the middle of delivering blows.

Lots of Minnesotans aren’t too keen on entering into a contract with a private prison company, says Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson). He hasn’t quite made up his mind on the issue, though he’s leaning against it simply because he believes prison is a public safety issue, a government responsibility.

At the same time, the taxpayer savings that come with leasing space in Appleton do look enticing, he says.

Though as much as the public might revile any contract with private companies, many already have their teeth in Minnesota. In the 1990s, the Department of Corrections was pretty gung-ho against for-profit prisons, but nowadays contracts with for-profit companies for laundry, food, and healthcare.

Some of these vendors submit marvelously low bids, only to renege on the services they deliver. The companies don’t always employ enough registered nurses, for example, inciting inmate complaints about access to basic care.

Some counties, like Dakota, impose fees on inmates for housing them. Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, says most county jails would do the same if they felt confident they could collect.

“Say it costs $55 a day. Many people, when they are booked in jail, don’t even have a dollar in their pocket,” Franklin says. “You can put that on a collection book and they will owe that to the county, but you will spend more resources trying to collect this debt because of the circumstances people are in. Some counties simply say it’s not worth the time and energy.”

The real conversation should be focused on keeping people out of jail in the first place.

“We’ll be looking at mental health facilities and the war on drugs, as to whether or not criminal penalties are really the ideal way to go for people with addictions,” Newman says. “Then we’ll dovetail into how much prison space do we really need.”