NASHWAUK — Staff from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Togo rallied beside hundreds of regional supporters on Monday in Nashwauk to protest against the loss of their jobs.

A similar protest by staff at the MCF-Willow in Moose Lake took place on Aug. 14. The gatherings come after Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell announced plans to close the two minimum-security facilities to help address a $14 million budget shortfall. Closing the state’s smallest facilities would save $11 million. But shutting them down means cutting most of the 100 positions and necessitating the transfer of about 150 prisoners to other sites beginning in the fall.

“My whole career has been here and I’d have to find something else and it’ll be pretty difficult to do that,” said Gino Anselmo, the warden of the MCF-Togo, who oversees roughly 60 staff and 180 people who cycle in-and-out of the facility on an annual basis. “My main concern is the wonderful staff that work for me have young families and good jobs and they contribute to their communities as volunteer firefighters, EMTs, coaches, councilmen. It’s going to be a real hit to our Range communities to lose this kind of facility.”

Since 1993, the MCF-Togo has been offering a boot camp program that allowed juveniles and now adults to qualify for early release. The Challenge Incarceration Program provides education, critical thinking skills development, chemical dependency programming, physical exercise and supervised work options. People who are incarcerated in the facility have worked for Habitat for Humanity crews.

Anselmo found the situation nonsensical: how the MCF-Togo and MCF-Willow facilities are being threatened with closures despite being praised for reducing recidivism and incarceration costs. He said the facilities offered needed programs in a time when state leaders are shouting for law enforcement and prison reform.

Data from the Department of Corrections shows that people in the Challenge Incarceration Program 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.”

Unified front in support of MCF-Togo

The warden’s concerns were the same as several masked politicians from northern Minnesota — Democrats and Republicans — who stood beside one another in a unified message of fighting for the existence of MCF-Togo.

“It’s very important that we let our voices be heard,” Nashwauk Mayor Calvin Saari said in his town’s park that sits roughly 25 miles from the facility. “It’s easy to pick on small facilities that just cost you a little bit of money when there’s big dollars that are needed.”

Saari was among the politicians who denounced how state legislators failed to pass a supplemental budget proposal that included funding for the Department of Corrections.

He offered his opinion on the problem at hand: “The unfortunate thing is the bonding bill and the supplemental bill tied together in the state legislature which the legislature has been unable to pass in three separate sessions holds the key to keeping this facility open. It’s my sincere hopes to convince the legislators to act on this.” He noted the Iron Range-based lawmakers are not the ones who need convincing but they needed to win over legislators from The Cities “who play the political posturing game that you and I as greater Minnesota residents pay the price for today.”

State Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, and State Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, described how they introduced bills this past legislative session to try and keep the facility open.

“We know that COVID has done a number on the state of Minnesota. We know that we are facing a deficit and this is not unique to the Iron Range. This is statewide,” Sandstede said. “But we’re not going to take the first hit in the state of Minnesota, in my district with MCF-Togo. It’s time to pump the brakes. It’s time to pause.”

She continued, “This is not big money that we’re talking about in a statewide budget. It’s time to slow down and really weigh the benefit of this program against the cost, because it is certainly outweighed in benefit.”

Other DFLers in attendance included State Sen. David Tomassoni, of Chisholm, State Rep. Robert Ecklund, of International Falls, and Dave Lislegard, of Aurora, who all gave impassioned speeches in support of the MCF-Togo workers. Ecklund said it was important to keep the facility open, especially at a time when the region has been struggling to diversify its economy. Commissioners from St. Louis and Itasca counties showed up to the rally, too, in addition to a representative from the office of the U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“Rural Minnesota matters,” said Republican Congressman Pete Stauber, who represents the Eighth Congressional District. “I am tired of the Iron Range and rural Minnesota taking a back seat. How many times do we have to take a back seat up here?”

He continued, yelling from the podium, “Our families matter. This is not a playground for the metro.”

Corrections Commissioner makes an appearance

Walking onto the stage, Schnell faced the crowd and told the workers and their families and neighbors that he made the decision to close the facility as part of “a range of bad options.” He added, “Cutting Togo was among the worst.”

The budget squeeze was out of his hands, he said. The Department of Corrections had submitted a supplementary budget in February. That passed the Minnesota House but failed to garner a consensus with the 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.

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.”

The economic troubles of Itasca County

Steve Giorgi, the executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, shared the economic situation in Itasca County (Pop. 45,130), where “the population and the businesses have suffered greatly because of the coronavirus.”

Between March 16 and July 13, county workers have filed 64,060 new initial applications for unemployment, representing 28.7 percent of the county civilian labor force. “Try and find that in another county in the state,” he said. “It’s not easy.”

Two of the highest-paying employers in the region — Blandin UPM Paper Mill and U.S. Steel’s Keetac mine — laid off more than 525 workers due to the economic toll of the coronavirus.

Moreover, e2ip Technologies, a Quebec-based company, just announced it would close its office in BigFork and permanently relocate 59 employees due to a need to consolidate operations in Canada.

“When you know the rural areas these people live in those jobs are gone,” Giorgi said. He added, Itasca’s 24-month unemployment rate went from 1.9 percent higher than the national average in February to 2.61 percent higher through May of 2020. “Those are not the kinds of records you want to break in your county.”

Itasca County has long relied heavily on timber, mining and tourism, but regional politicians have sought to diversify the economy. “The MCF-Togo represents critical family sustaining positions in rural Minnesota outside of those industries and are the best examples of diversifying our rural economy to sustain through economic downturn,” he said. “We can’t shut that facility down.”

Commitments from DFLers and GOP, spreading the blame

“I am here because the Iron Range matters,” said Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler. “I am here because your jobs matter. I am here because your union matters. I am here because this community matters. And I’m here because the work that you do matters.”

Winkler said that he represents 75 Democrats in the Minnesota House who all support the Togo facility and the supplemental budget to keep it open and the corrections budget to come and a bonding bill to reinvest in such facilities across the state. The DFLers, he said, had previously passed a supplemental budget bill and “can do this September and we can do it.”

He opined that the hurdles to doing so were not the 612 area code found in The Cities but “arguments over things like masks.” “We can’t have arguments that say we should shut down the governor’s emergency powers to fight COVID in order to have a bonding bill,” he said to much applause. “As long as we’re arguing about masks we are not getting the work done on behalf of the people of Minnesota. We need a bonding bill. We need a supplemental budget bill. We need to make sure these facilities stay open.”

“You don’t need politics. There’s plenty of that in this election year,” he added. “You don’t need rhetoric. You don’t need pounding on podiums. We can all do that. What you need are people to go to work and get the job done on your behalf.”

Eichorn, the GOP state senator from Grand Rapids, reiterated that he worked with Sandstede and Tomassoni to put forth a bill that came all too late in the legislative session. But he went on to tell the MCF-Togo workers that he would continue to work for them. “We’re trying to educate metro folks in St. Paul and other metro legislators that the CIP program is a program that changes people’s lives and it pays for itself in reduced recidivism rates,” he said. “This is a program that should continue to move forward and it can.”

He blamed the governor for the state’s plan to close MCF-Togo and MCF-Willow River, saying that the 2020 budget funded the facilities, but “unfortunately when you have emergency powers and one individual making all the decisions we get to points like this.” He shifted gears to add, “I support a supplemental budget if that’s what’s needed. I voted for the bonding bill, because it’s good for the Range and it’s that ‘One Range, One Voice’ that I continue to support.” He asked people to call the governor and tell him, “There’s more than rocks and cows here.”

Itasca County Commissioner Ben DeNucci ramped up the crowd when he asked them, “Are we just going to sit back and let this happen? Are we going to go down without a fight?”

DeNucci answered, “No, we won’t. We won’t let them be cast aside. We won’t let them get treated like they don’t matter. We are tired of being ignored. We are sick and tired of being lied to. They are not the problem. MCF-Togo: you are not the problem. You are the solution.” He added, “The problem is politicians that choose politics at all cost.”

He called out Minnesota House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Paul Gazelka, both Republicans, and criticized their efforts to block bonding projects and a supplemental budget. “They think they’re doing us some kind of big favor; they’re not,” he said. “When they refuse to do their jobs they make us suffer here. When those politicians choose politics over people our people lose their jobs. We don’t play that game here.”

He had a final message for the GOP politicians in the metro: “Do your jobs in St. Paul so that we can keep our jobs on the Iron Range.”

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