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Appleton built it ... and they came

Minnesota State Roundup

July 1, 1993

Appleton built it ... and they came

City officials in Appleton have reason to smile these days. They signed a contract in April with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to fill all 516 beds at the Prairie Correctional Facility, the municipally owned and operated medium-security prison.

This is good economic news for the town of about 1,800 and for largely rural southwestern Minnesota because the prison, built as an economic development venture, sat empty for nearly a year while contracts for inmates were sought.

However, the facility is not without problems. An inmate disturbance in mid-June underscored the communication problem among inmates and guards, and some state officials have voiced concern about the prison's readiness. But prison officials are confident that the facility will fare well during its July inspection and attain full licensing status.

The $28.5 million facility, built to stem the tide of an economic downturn in the area, will provide as many as 170 jobs when the inmate transfer process is complete in late summer. "Eighty-one percent of the first 113 employees live within 30 miles of Appleton and 56 of those have Appleton addresses," says Bob Thompson, Appleton city manager.

The facility is unique in the United States, according to Thompson, and has brought optimism to the five-county area. "This project has had a positive effect on the whole region. It shows us that people want to stay in this area or move back here as long as there are jobs," says Paul Michaelson, executive director of the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission.

Retail business is up and grocery stores are competing for prison concession contracts, while Appleton is moving ahead with infrastructure improvements such as a new airport, water tower and sewers. A 34-unit Super 8 Motel was built during the prison's construction phase, and additional single and multi-family housing units are under construction.

To accommodate the Spanish-speaking inmate population, a full-time Spanish teacher has been hired. "We've found some good people in the area that speak Spanish," Thompson adds.

John Kohl, interim warden at Prairie Correctional, says Spanish classes have been accelerated for prison staff, who are offered incentives for passing proficiency tests. "We've added a unique new job description for inmates—'interpreter.' Signage, policy statements and inmate handbooks have all been translated to Spanish," Kohl says.

Prison staff has ordered library books and newspapers written in Spanish and has made arrangements with a local cable television company to access a Spanish television channel. In addition, five Puerto Rican correctional officers are temporarily working at the prison to help with communications between prisoners and staff in return for training at the on-site prison academy.

Christine Power