Detainees wanted: Minnesota’s closed private prison eyes a deal with ICE

Published 7:10 am Saturday, August 24, 2019

By Riham Feshir

For nearly 10 years, owners of a shuttered prison in western Minnesota have been keen on bringing inmates back.

They want to fill the former Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn., and its 1,600 empty beds. One idea the private company has turned to is reopening the prison as a federal immigrant detention center.

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It’s hard to say how likely that would be — any negotiations between the facility’s owner, CoreCivic, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, are private. But the proposals have divided this town of 1,300, and alarmed some residents who say the firm is too focused on profit and has a national track record of mistreating inmates.

Putting an ICE detention facility in an agricultural town that relies on immigrants “is not who we are,” said Amy Bacigalupo, an activist leading the effort to stop a proposed contract with ICE. “We are an inclusive and welcoming community, and immigrants are really important in our community.”

ICE has been interested in finding a place to house 200 to 600 detainees within 180 miles of St. Paul, according to a request for information it released in 2017. After receiving bids this year, ICE officials indicated just last week on a government site that “it is not in the government’s best interest to make any award under this solicitation” and closed the bidding process.

But that doesn’t mean negotiations with CoreCivic or other entities for a new detention facility in Minnesota are dead.

ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer said the bidding process was canceled this month due to not receiving acceptable proposals, but that discussions are underway to determine next steps. That could mean reissuing requests or expanding an existing contract. ICE currently contracts with the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office to house up to 300 detainees in its Elk River jail.

About 430 people were held on alleged immigration violations in Minnesota as of December 2018, according to the latest detention figures from Syracuse University, which routinely gathers this data.

Several private prison companies and local governments have expressed interest in contracting with ICE to house detainees in facilities mostly in rural Minnesota.

While the process has stalled in some cities, it continues to move forward in others. Two sites that would’ve served the St. Paul region — Pine Island in southeastern Minnesota and New Richmond, Wis. — never came to fruition. But cities like Appleton ad Elk River are seeing a continued push to house immigrant detainees, with officials citing the economic benefits their communities could experience from a facility.

Tennessee-based CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, is the second-highest paid contractor for immigration detention in the country. In Appleton, company representatives informed county officials this spring of their intention to submit a proposal to ICE.

Swift County Board Chairman Gary Hendrickx toured the prison this spring and backs the idea of housing immigrant detainees there.

“When we’re looking at the prison, we feel we have a base of employees that we could garner in our region that would be excellent in this line of work and give a lot of care and respect to the individuals who are incarcerated,” said Hendrickx.