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Planned Massive Shortfall in Funding to Maintain Minnesota Prisons

Traditionally, the state of Minnesota passes a bonding bill, which funds the state’s expenditures not covered by revenues like taxes, only once every two years. However, the pandemic is a cause to change things up. So, after passing a $1.87 billion bonding bill in October 2020, Governor Tim Walz put forward another $518 million package for legislators to consider in February.

The Editorial Board of the St. Cloud Times published an interesting analysis of the proposed bonding bill in the context of prison maintenance plans. It explained that this proposal included $100 million for competitive projects to support home ownership; $52.5 million for the Department of Natural Resources (with about two-thirds of that for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades); $43 million in upgrades to the state capital; $10 million for the leg-work to support a second Amtrak run between the Twin Cities and Chicago.

It also includes $9.7 million for maintenance on the state’s prisons. That amount may not raise eyebrows out of context, but the Times board elaborated on the bigger picture: the state is currently behind $612 million in deferred maintenance for its prison facilities.

Legislators make promises, such as how they’ll be “tough on crime” and lock-up criminals, in order to get elected. What they don’t tell voters is that locking people up for years or decades, well beyond what is reasonably necessary to deter future criminality, costs more money than most taxpaying voters comprehend.

Minnesota has 11 prisons and approximately 8,500 men and women crammed into them. This is not cheap, but it would be far more expensive to build new facilities than to maintain the ones the state currently has.

These prisons need security upgrades, window and door replacements, hazardous materials abatement, roof replacements, brick-work, and other code-compliance issues.

This is not about making prisons comfortable. This is about making sure they meet minimum health and safety standards for the prisoners who live there and the staff who work there.

At this funding rate, it will take 63 years to pay for all of the maintenance required on the facilities. And that only covers the maintenance that has accrued up until now, not the maintenance that will accrue during that time.

Minnesota is not alone in facing this financial reality. As for what happens when states fail to keep up with prison maintenance, we can look to Mississippi’s utter failure of a prison system. The penitentiary in Parchman is one of the most notorious prisons (it houses the state’s death-sentenced prisoners), and one of its oldest. Just before the pandemic, prisoners with access to cell phones leaked photos and video of black mold, backed-up sewage drains, gaping holes in roofs, and live electrical wires floating in standing water. As prisoners in state facilities across the country can attest, conditions like this are not a rare occurrence, on the contrary, they are commonplace.  

The undeniable truth is that Minnesota wouldn’t need to spend over $600 million to maintain facilities if it didn’t lock-up enough people to fill 11 prisons. This is money that could be reinvested instead in schools, jobs, and community programs or plain old infrastructure like roads and bridges.

Meanwhile, as of July 1, the Governor’s latest proposed bonding bill still hasn’t moved forward. With Minnesota becoming ground zero for a movement bent on altering the criminal justice system in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, perhaps decarceration-oriented policies could have chance at entering the budget dialogue.

According to the Mankato Free Press, “Governor Walz is expected to call a special session in September to address $250 million in federal aid for bonuses to frontline workers during the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told reporters a bonding agreement could be in place by then.” 



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