Private prisons ban closer to law in Minnesota, flogging ‘perverse incentives’ lawmakers say

Seeking to more equitability rehabilitate its convicted prison inmates, Minnesota lawmakers are set to vote on a measure that would ban privately owned and operated prisons in the state.

"Rehabilitation is a core responsibility of our state government, and it should be done by those who are accountable to the public, and not by those who are incentivized by profits," said Rep. Dan Wolgamott (DFL–St. Cloud) at a press conference Thursday.

Sponsored by Wolgamott, H.F. 1200, would require state prison and local jail inmates to be housed in publicly owned and operated prisons and jails.

If approved, the law would prohibit the commissioner of corrections from housing inmates in privately owned jails and prisons after July 1, 2023. 

It would also prohibit the Department of Corrections from entering into a contract with privately owned and operated prisons to care for state inmates, and prohibit the placement of jail inmates in privately owned facilities.

Critics contend the private prison system complex has long been predatory in nature, relying on incentivizing high inmate capacities over vacant buildings – oftentimes at the expense of minority communities that are charged with crimes disproportionally.

"Private prisons have a troubling history with cutting corners in order to maximize their profits. This jeopardizes public safety and leads to higher numbers of prison rapes, lack of medical care for inmates, and higher rates of recidivism because they do not adequately fund rehabilitation programs," Wolgamott said. "Private prisons have perverse incentives – recidivism is good for their bottom line. More crime equals more profit, and public safety takes a backseat."

According to critics, private prison systems remain largely accountable to profit, while a government-run system is held accountable by the public.

"Minnesotans value public safety above all else, and our members have no other motive than to ensure public safety," said AFSCME Council 5 Executive Director Julie Bleyhl on Thursday. 

Previously, Bleyhl called for better staffing at state-run prisons following violent incidents against its officers, saying, "[AFSCME Council 5] Correctional Officers from across our state have long been gravely disturbed by the constant stream of assaults on staff within the walls of our correctional and secure facilities… Increased safe staffing levels in every facility and investments in all staff must be prioritized in order to properly staff and secure these often-dangerous workplaces across our state to maintain public safety."

On Thursday, Bleyhl said publicly operated prisons are able to more effectively lobby for staffing and security procedures on behalf of their officers, as opposed to privately operated facilities.

"In our public system we can fight for safe staffing and more funding, unlike the countless times when assaults have been hidden in order to maintain corporate reputation, and a goal of increasing profit margin," Bleyhl said. "Private prisons are immoral, and must be banned."

Several concerns arose among lawmakers as to whether or not small municipalities should be able to opt-out, citing a lack of need and overly burdensome requirements.

The bill’s companion, S.F. 1241, is still waiting for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety. 

Its passage would be required for the measure to ultimately head to Gov. Tim Walz for approval.