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Shakopee's getting the most attractive prison fence ever

Move over, woefully dreary prison fences of yore. Shakopee's locking 'em up in style.

Move over, woefully dreary prison fences of yore. Shakopee's locking 'em up in style.

Drab cement walls are so passé. And barbed wire and chain-link fence don’t create that warm, inviting look you want in a prison wall.

Not falling into the unfashionable trappings of perimeter security, Minnesota’s only women’s penitentiary is getting a stylish new fence. Well, stylish by prison standards.

According to the Department of Corrections, the Women’s Correctional Facility in Shakopee is the nation’s only such prison housing “maximum custody level offenders” — including 95 murderous meanies — without a perimeter fence. For years efforts to build one have been met with resistance from residents, who worried an ugly wall would drag down property values and make the neighborhood gross.

But after Sen. Eric Pratt (R-Prior Lake) scored state funds for the project, construction is underway on a fence that will hopefully keep prisoners from busting loose without being an eyesore.

“It was important to me that if we were going to do this it had to blend in with the community, not detract from property values, and be respectful to the neighbors as well as the residents,” Pratt says.

Instead of a depressingly gray concrete wall, the new $5.4 million fence features brick columns, timelessly chic wrought iron, and zero unattractive razor wire.

Despite the fact that there’s an elementary school nearby, Pratt says many longtime residents aren’t particularly concerned about the threat of escaped convicts. Since opening in 1986, the facility has evolved from a smaller reformatory to a prison that locks up more high-level criminals, tripling its population in the process, Pratt says.

While at least eight inmates have escaped over the years, with the last breakout coming in 2013, Pratt says prison staff has mostly kept any issues of being a fenceless prison at bay.

“There’s never been a significant issue,” he says. “Nobody’s been hurt or kidnapped or anything like that. But my job is to think of the what if. What if an inmate got out and ended up in a school across the street?"

Warden Tracy Beltz says the fence is long overdue. Getting by without one has been “very staff intensive,” she says, as extra eyeballs are needed to monitor inmates whenever they move throughout the facility. While their neighbors’ concerns about appearance complicated the long-debated project, Beltz says they found a good compromise that doesn’t sacrifice security.

“It’s a little bit more stately in appearance,” Beltz says. “It looks like something you would see around St. Kate’s, a small college campus.”

Admittedly, an ugly fence would have been cheaper. But Pratt says it was their duty to heed the community’s aesthetic concerns.

“It felt to me like it was our responsibility to help protect some of these property values, help maintain the atmosphere of the neighborhood,” Pratt says.

Minnesota’s loveliest prison fence is slated for a spring 2016 completion.