REGIONAL- The head of the state Department of Corrections told a state House committee that closing the Togo and Willow River correctional facilities was “one of a range of really bad …
REGIONAL- The head of the state Department of Corrections told a state House committee that closing the Togo and Willow River correctional facilities was “one of a range of really bad options” during a recent virtual hearing. The ultimate fate of the facilities remains in limbo ahead of an upcoming legislative special session.
DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell and others testified before an online hearing of the Minnesota House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform committee on Sept. 1, and Schnell called his recommendation to close the facilities to help fill a $14 million budget shortfall “draconian.”
“The deficiency results from Senate inaction on the agency’s supplemental budget request,” Schnell said. “The decision to close these facilities was at the top of the list of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make in my career.”
Schnell said that other alternatives, such as closing units in larger facilities or making another system-wide round of personnel cuts, would not achieve the agency’s financial or service needs.
“We considered options that would help us achieve the required savings and have the least impact on bed space,” Schnell said.
But District 32A Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, grilled Schnell about why the department should even have a budget deficit to contend with.
“We’ve been running short-staffed for two years,” Johnson said. “We fully budgeted for the employees, including 50-plus new employees, and we’ve never been fully staffed. At times we were over 100 short. Overtime is less expensive tha a full-time employee. I’d really like to know how we got this huge deficit when we haven’t had full staff.”
Schnell noted that even though the overall inmate census had dropped, it takes the same number of staff to operate housing units whether inmates are single or double-bunked. Larger institutions have been utilizing single-bunk arrangements to minimize COVID-19 risk.
“The reason you aren’t seeing the big reductions is that unless we start to pack people in closer and shut down posts, which has implications from a COVID standpoint, we don’t realize the savings because of that,” Schnell said.
“We need to keep the programs the way they are,” Johnson said. “We need to look at other places to make up this shortfall, and it’s a huge shortfall.”
Current and former employees of Togo and Willow River testified about the effectiveness of their Challenge Incarceration Programs and the detrimental effects closing the facilities would have on families, community services, and future offenders who would benefit from the program.
“If this program is not funded, it will be a huge step in the wrong direction,” said 32-year Togo veteran and former captain Terry Sullivan. “The savings to the taxpayers is a verifiable amount. I really compare this decision to not spending $10 for caulking for your windows when you know over time it will save much more in reduced heating costs. The commissioner is focused on the here and now, which he probably has to be, but please don’t allow a quick fix to the budget that we will all pay for years to follow.”
A supplemental funding bill similar to one already passed by the House, but not acted upon by the Senate, is expected to be introduced when Gov. Tim Walz calls the legislature back into special session later this month. Without additional funding, MCF-Togo is expected to be closed by early December, and MCF-Willow River in January.