State Sen. David J. Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) has formally requested that Gov. Tim Walz call a special legislative session in hopes of passing a supplemental budget to prevent the closures of Minnesota Correctional Facilities in Togo and Willow River.
“This action by the department is unacceptable for the individuals serving in these facilities, the workers at these facilities, or the people of Minnesota,” Tomassoni said in a Saturday press release.
Tomassoni continued, “We cannot afford to have these facilities – which have an impressive record of successfully turning the lives of incarcerated Minnesotans around – close due to issues that could be fixed tomorrow. Democrats and Republicans both agree we need a supplemental budget; we can certainly get back into session and get it done quickly. There does not need to be agreement on the bonding bill for us to get this done. These programs and jobs are too important, which is why we need a special session to pass a supplemental budget now.”
The DOC had submitted a supplementary budget for the facilities in February. That budget passed the Minnesota House but failed to garner a consensus with the state Senate. The bonding bill had infrastructure projects for MCF-Togo and MCF-Willow River tied into it, but that got blocked by House Republicans on more than one occasion and needed a three-fifths majority of the chamber to pass.
Due to the stalemate, DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell in August announced plans to close the two minimum-security facilities to help address a $14 million budget shortfall in saving $11 million. (The DOC has an annual budget of $624 million.) According to Minnesota Public Radio, shutting down MCF-Togo and MCF-Willow River would represent the first closure of a state correctional facility since a juvenile facility in Sauk Centre, Minn., closed in 1999.
Iron Range based legislators have since been fighting against the closures and argue that shutting down the facilities could result in cutting most of the 100 positions and necessitating the transfer of about 150 prisoners to other sites beginning in the fall.
Last month, Congressman Pete Stauber and a host of bipartisan politicians from northern Minnesota held a rally in Nashwauk to protest the loss of jobs at the MCF-Togo facility. Tomassoni was in attendance and spoke at the event. Earlier that month, a similar rally had been held in Moose Lake protesting job losses at the Willow River facility.
In Nashwauk, MCF-Togo Warden Gino Anselmo said it was nonsensical that the facilities were being threatened with closures despite being praised for reducing recidivism and incarceration costs. Moreover, he said the facilities offered needed programs in a time when state leaders are shouting for law enforcement and prison reform.
The MCF-Togo is located in Itasca County and houses up-to 90 non-violent drug and property male offenders. MCF-Willow River facility is set in southeast Pine County and houses up to 180 non-violent drug and property male offenders. Both facilities house a minimum security boot camp, called Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP), which allows qualifying non-violent offenders to early release. Since 1993, the MCF-Togo has been offering the boot camp program that allowed juveniles and now adults to qualify for early release. CIP provides education, critical thinking skills development, chemical dependency programming, physical exercise and supervised work options.
Data from the Department of Corrections shows that people in the CIP reoffend at a 32 percent lower rate than other offenders with similar criminal factors. Also, their chances for reincarnation for a new crime drops by 35 percent, which in turn reduces cost by $4,600 per person annually.
“The big loss will be the incarcerated people who come to our program really have an opportunity to discover a lot about themselves in a therapeutic environment,” Anselmo said. “That’s going to be really difficult to replicate in a prison setting.”
Still, Schnell told MPR that upon closures the DOC would move the CIP programs to other minimum custody sites in Stillwater, Lino Lakes, Faribault or Red Wing.
Making an appearance at the Nashwauk rally, Schnell sought to explain that the decision was one of “a range of bad options.” As he told his side of the story, Minnesota law prevented him from spending “behind the appropriation” given to the Department of Corrections in the state budget, which forced him into the decision.
“There is nothing that I would like more than the opportunity to walk this back,” Schnell said. “Nothing I would like more.”
Eric Killelea contributed reporting to this article.