REGIONAL- When the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced last week that it intends to close the Togo Correctional Facility to help solve its $14 million budget crisis, it created a greater …
REGIONAL- When the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced last week that it intends to close the Togo Correctional Facility to help solve its $14 million budget crisis, it created a greater crisis among the people who work there and the communities they call home.
That’s according to people who know the facility, its employees, and the region, and who warn that the true costs of closing “Thistledew Camp” reach far beyond the camp’s borders, affecting the stability, vitality, health and safety of the surrounding region.
The heart of Morcom Township lies just ten miles east of MCF-Togo, and it’s been home to Dirk Davis for about 25 years. He’s a township supervisor, a former deputy sheriff in St. Louis County for three decades, and a friend and acquaintance of many who work at the Togo facility.
“The damage that the closure of these camps would cause to our local community is far out of proportion to the money that it will supposedly save the state of Minnesota, far out of proportion. The damage is just going to be tremendous,” Davis said.
While the DOC says that 48 full-time equivalent positions at Togo will be affected, District 6A Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, said that number is deceptive.
“Those numbers are not accurate. In Togo there are 60-plus employees; they’re not all 100-percent FTEs,” Sandstede said. “When you lose a job in greater Minnesota, it’s like the equivalent of losing 50 to 100 jobs in the metro area. Making cuts like they’re proposing absolutely disproportionally impacts greater Minnesota. ‘One Minnesota’ does not mean ‘Let’s hammer greater Minnesota.’”
For those who lose their jobs, there aren’t any other equivalent local options, Davis said.
“As far as good -paying, reliable jobs, we can’t replace those jobs,” he said. “There are people in this area that travel some distance to work in the mines, but as far as a more local employer, the correctional facility is it. We can’t replace it.”
Max Hall, Public Affairs and Political Action Director at the AFSCME Council 5 office in Duluth, the union that represents Thistledew employees, said they’ve been in contact with many of their members, and the impact has been jolting.
“When I hear all these stories from our members, it’s really heartbreaking – they’re not sure if they’re going to have a job,” he said. “Members are moving up to work at Togo and they buy homes. They have families. A couple of these folks are couples with young children, and they just bought homes up there. These communities need facilities like this, and especially with really small communities that are really close knit, this is vitally important to make sure we’re fighting to keep these facilities.”
According to DOC Communications Director Nicholas Kimball, most of those positions will simply be eliminated, although some will be retained to implement the facility’s Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP) at other correctional facilities.
MCF-Willow River, another CIP site, is also slated for closure, but Kimball said Togo will likely be shut down first.
“We have to move quickly to realize savings in this fiscal year and anticipate the process being completed in this calendar year or very early into 2021,” he said.
If MCF-Togo is shuttered, it won’t be only laid-off workers and their families who will suffer.
“The people who work at this camp, off the job they’re some of the leaders in the community,” Davis said. “They’re some of the first to volunteer in their communities. I know one of them who’s the fire chief for a volunteer fire department. If they have to leave the area it would be such a tremendous loss, it really would, because they’re very valuable people.”
Sandstede amplified Davis’s concerns.
“The ripple effect that relocating these individuals would have on our rural communities would be devastating,” she said. “The same people who are working in those facilities are the volunteer firefighters, the EMTs, the first responders, school board members. They’re the people who are buying groceries at the one small grocery store in the community and keeping that small business owner afloat.”
The loss of the CIP restorative justice work crews at Togo who do projects throughout the area will be felt, too.
“Every spring, just before Memorial Day, they come in and clean up the Morcom Township cemetery,” Davis said. “That’s one of the many things that they do. They take care of a number of DNR campgrounds and boat landings. They’re smaller campgrounds, but if the inmates are not there taking care of them, they’re going to close, because the DNR says they just don’t have the money to take care of them.”
Willow River serves as an example of how closures can negatively affect local governments, too. Hall said an MCF-Willow River employee who also serves on the Sturgeon Lake City Council told him that the city stands to lose about $60,000 in revenue if that facility closes.
The CIP began in 1992 at Willow River and was expanded to Togo in 2015 when the facility transitioned from Thistledew Camp for juveniles to working with minimum-security adults. Initially, adult women were served at Togo, but today the facility serves up to 90 men in Phase 1 of the CIP, which involves chemical dependency treatment, education, restorative justice, physical training, military bearing, drill, and ceremony, work crew, and transition preparation.
The program’s success was documented by a study in 2006 that found CIP reduced the chances of participants reoffending and being reincarcerated by more than 30 percent. In current dollars, the study found CIP saves the department about $6,600 per participant.
Kimball reaffirmed DOC’s commitment to maintaining the CIP at other facilities, but Davis, with his law enforcement background, is skeptical that it will remain as effective. DOC officials are overlooking a critical element that makes CIP a success – Togo’s rural location and camp-like setting.
“They’re going to transfer those programs to other facilities such as Stillwater or St. Cloud. You’re operating them out of a prison-like facility, and you’re not going to get the same success rate out of a heavily confined prison. It’s a different environment.”
Sandstede said the advantage of having the program at Togo should be obvious to urban-oriented officials and legislators.
“Metro people know this,” she said. “They always come to northern Minnesota to unwind and decompress, to relax. [For inmates] getting away from the noise and clutter and din and chaos of life and going to a facility like Togo to take a deep introspective look at what’s causing them to drink or turn to drugs – you can’t do that in Stillwater. It won’t be the same.”
The other element larger facilities can’t replicate is a close-knit staff all committed to the same mission, Davis noted.
“Part of their success is their belief in their program. They believe in this program so much that the staff gets very invested in the success of the inmates who are there to participate,” he said.
Sandstede is adamant that moving the CIP and closing Togo is a bad decision.
“It will be devastating and reckless on the part of the state to take something that is so beneficial in the lives of individuals struggling with drugs or alcohol, and taking that success story away from them and adding layers of costs on the backs of taxpayers when they reoffend,” Sandstede said. “Here we have a shining star, we have a Minnesota success story, and we have by far the most dedicated, compassionate, skilled set of workers, and we just expect them to move? There are short-term costs, but there are going to be much greater costs, and you cannot put a cost on saving someone’s life and changing someone’s life permanently for the better.”
The current projected budget deficit that DOC faces through June 2021 includes a $4.2 million shortfall in MINNCORR Industries revenue, and approximately $14 million resulting from employment-related costs, including compensation, step increases, and healthcare costs, according to Kimball. Of equal concern is the looming revenue shortfall for the next two-year budget cycle stemming from the COVID-19 induced recession.
“COVID-19 has impacted the state’s revenues and budget reserves, leaving the entire state in a difficult budgetary position moving forward,” Kimball said.
Sandstede isn’t buying the notion that Togo and Willow River are the answer to DOC’s budget woes.
“This program, this department itself was fully funded through 2021, so I need to understand why we’re in such a deficit,” Sandstede said. “They’re not going to save the money that they’re projecting if they just move the program to another location. They’re only going to save the amount of a couple of facilities, but with the cost of putting the inmates someplace else, running the program, bringing in staff to work with them, they’re not going to save the money they’re talking about.”
The budget crisis was created when the Senate failed to act on a supplemental budget request that had cleared the House, and Sandstede has been soured on the lack of communication from Gov. Tim Walz and his administration from the moment she heard about DOC’s decision to close Togo.
“I learned about this through a text from a constituent,” she said. “I had no outreach from the governor’s office. I had no indication this was going to happen. This is terrible communication This is a blunder.”
Sandstede said legislators were not given anything by the Walz administration that outlined possible consequences of failing to pass a supplemental budget measure.
“That should have been communicated,” Sandstede said. “If it really is hinging on a supplemental budget bill, then it’s time for the governor to roll up his sleeves and go back to work and start working with the legislature so we will pass this. To get out of this successfully we’re going to have to work together.”
In addition to the Togo closure being the wrong move to address the budget shortfall, Sandstede also believes it’s a bad decision for addressing a growing backlog of offenders. Instead of closing Togo, the DOC should consider expanding it, she said.
“When we emerge from COVID and things get back to some semblance of normal, we already have a backlog in our court system of chemical dependency, drug dependency, and mental health issues that are piling up during this time,” she said. “We’re going to have to deal with them. We’re going to have a need for probably more beds, not less. We have an opportunity in Togo to expand if we need to. Instead of eliminating jobs we should have an eye on expanding jobs. Why we would put them in less successful programs at higher cost, I don’t know. We’re not looking very far into the future by doing this.”
Meanwhile, AFSCME Council 5 staff are busy working with members to advocate on their own behalf, Hall said. They organized a phone campaign this week to assist workers with contacting legislators and legislative aides to push for supplemental funding that would keep Togo open. They’re also being encouraged to participate in a larger effort involving AFSCME Council 5 and other unions to lobby Congress, and specifically the Senate, to pass the HEROES Relief Act which would provide more than $1 trillion in state aid, Hall said.
“That’s something that’s absolutely critical for our members, given that they work in state and local governments and nonprofits that would benefit,” Hall said.
Sandstede said she was scheduled to meet with Walz and DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell on Tuesday afternoon to get a full update.
Meanwhile, Davis suggested Walz hadn’t helped himself in the eyes of rural Minnesotans with this most recent slight.
“I know it’s upsetting people that Gov. Walz’s administration has decided to put the burden of this shortfall on outstate Minnesota,” he said. “That’s another thing sticking in the craw of a number of people.”