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NASHWAUK— There were many voices, but one consistent message officials delivered here on Monday: a supplemental budget bill is the only sure solution to keep the Togo Correctional Facility, …
NASHWAUK— There were many voices, but one consistent message officials delivered here on Monday: a supplemental budget bill is the only sure solution to keep the Togo Correctional Facility, long known as Thistledew Camp, open beyond November.
About 400 supporters of the camp and its roughly 60 employees attended this week’s rally in opposition to the proposed closure of the facility. They most wanted to hear from Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who announced earlier this month that both the Togo and Willow River facilities would be permanently closed to address a $14 million shortfall in the department’s budget.
Schnell emphasized that the department had submitted a supplemental budget request to the state Legislature in February, and that while it had passed in the DFL-led House, the GOP-led Senate never held a hearing or took action on it.
“We need to get this through, and I believe that I’m hearing it’s possible,” Schnell said. “We certainly had a lot of conversations about it. But there was a lot of talk about the importance of it. And there is nothing that I would like more than the opportunity to walk this back.”
Schnell said he visited Togo before coming to the rally, and in comments made to the Timberjay after the event he described his experience.
“It was all a horrible decision to make anyway, but then you come here,” he said. “I talked to the men who were being served by the program. You talk with staff who are being impacted, and then come here and see the community support. Of course, it’s disheartening. And it’s certainly not a position I’d like to be in. I wish, and I’m hopeful, that this type of mobilization ultimately results in the outcomes that we all want.”
Schnell confirmed that without supplemental funding, MCF-Togo will close in late November or early December. A graduation for current participants in the Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP) is scheduled for Nov. 16, and no new inmates are being sent to the facility, he said. Staffing will be gradually reduced to the minimum needed to decommission the facility.
“We invested in infrastructure here and in Willow River and had a supplemental budget we wanted. We were 100 percent committed to moving forward,” Schnell said. “We are planning to move forward (with the closure), because we have to be responsible. But at the same time, we’re hopeful that the supplemental budget comes through and we can walk this back and just keep on without a big change.”
Eighth District Congressman Pete Stauber, R-Duluth, had harsh words for Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Schnell, and urban state legislators, even though most of the resistance to the supplemental funding has come from rural GOP legislators.
“This is not a playground for the metro,” Stauber declared. “This is our home. This is where we work. This is where we live. This is where we raise our families. This decision isn’t over yet. That’s why we’re here, Commissioner. You’re going to bring this passionate message to our governor and tell them, ‘No more, we’ve had enough.’”
Multiple speakers noted the contributions of MCF-Togo CIP participants to the quality of life in the region, including their work on 29 Habitat for Humanity homes and building ramps for home accessibility for clients of Access North Center for Independent Living in Hibbing.
Ben DeNucci, chairman of the Itasca County Board of Commissioners, emphasized Togo’s community service in his remarks.
“Their work crews make our communities better places,” he said. “They clean up our cities. They look after our parks. They assist the elderly and disabled, and the men and women at MCF-Togo do all this with humility.”
DeNucci then turned to the MCF-Togo staff.
“They don’t ask for recognition or awards,” he said. “But how have they been rewarded? By being called into a room and told that their jobs have been terminated, their families’ health care insurance gone, their retirement plans gone? They’re faced with the decision to sell their homes and move. That doesn’t make sense to me. Does that make any sense to you? Are we just going to sit back and let this happen to them? Are we going to go down without a fight? No, we won’t. 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.”
Rally-goers also heard from District 6A Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, District 3A Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, District 6 Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, former MCF-Togo captain and CIP director Terry Sullivan, Itasca County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Jamie Mjolsness, and RAMS Executive Director Steve Giorgi, all extolling the virtues of MCF-Togo and the CIP program and urging people to support saving the facility by contacting legislators and state officials to support supplemental funding.
However, the most emotionally stirring speech may have been the unscripted spontaneous remarks of District 6B Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora.
Lislegard was on stage as a show of support and didn’t intend to speak, he said, until moved to do so at the last minute by someone in the crowd.
That someone was youngster Nikko Porter, of Pengilly, whose father works at MCF-Togo. Nikko and his family were among the few who chose to sit on the hot asphalt in front of the stage rather than seek the comfort of the shade. Seated in a child-sized lawn chair, Nikko held a brightly lettered sign over his head that read “Save Our Daddy’s Job.”
“I wasn’t going to speak, but I saw that sign out there that says save my daddy’s job,” Lislegard said when he stepped to the podium. An edge of emotion in his voice grew as he continued.
“Almost 20 years ago, I was a father, 27 years old, married with two children, and I lost my job,” he said. “And I watched what happened when it just ravaged the Range. We lost our only grocery store. We lost our only dentist, we lost our only pharmacy, and we’re still struggling. The union hall that I was a trustee of, Local 41? Oh wait, it’s now the food shelf.”
Lislegard continued, “You know, it’s really sad how hard it is on the Iron Range that we have to fight, to go to work and to keep our jobs,” he said. “We’re not asking for a free lunch or handouts. We’re asking for the ability to go to work and provide for our families and contribute to society. And yet we’re here doing this. Come on, Governor. Come on, Commissioner. We need your help. And we need to get it done.”
The next opportunity for the Legislature to consider the supplemental budget request will be at a special session in September.
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