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Former state prison to reopen as private facility

Associated Press

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. -- A former state prison reopening as a private facility for nonviolent offenders will house people from central Minnesota counties who need treatment and education.

The Oak Ridge Regional Corrections Facility brings life back to an historic campus that has been dormant since the former prison closed in July 1999. The Department of Corrections gave licensing approval to Oak Ridge last week.

The owners hope to capitalize on overcrowded prisons and jails, a need for treatment for drug offenders -- particularly methamphetamine users -- and economics. Oak Ridge will house nonviolent offenders who are eligible for work release or work crews.

"We feel confident that with those types of individuals, and the housing problems jails are having, it would be something that everybody could benefit from," said Executive Director Todd Bauers.

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Oak Ridge will charge $55 a day per inmate, a rate in line with area county jail costs. Oak Ridge is offering to transport inmates from the counties housing them now to the facility in Sauk Centre. Oak Ridge also will transport offenders from its facility to any treatment appointments and may one day provide treatment on site.

The reopening of the facility is a homecoming for administrator Scott Wierschem, who worked at the prison before it closed five years ago. Oak Ridge is owned by Jim Jauss, who runs three private facilities in the Duluth area.

Wierschem said inmates will work at such jobs as shoveling snow and mowing lawns or study for their GED.

"Problems happen in jails and prison when they're idle," he said. "So we'll keep them busy."

Stearns County, on average, has 20 inmates each day housed in facilities other than its jail. Benton County, which has a history of providing jail space to house other county's inmates, is now seeing more of its space taken up by inmates of its own.

Stearns County jail administrator Paul Lahr said the county is looking closely at using the Sauk Centre facility, but had not yet made a decision about whether to use it.

Oak Ridge could be an economic boost to Sauk Centre, with about half a dozen people hired already. That number will grow with the addition of inmates. City leaders in 1999 said the closing of the prison cost the local economy about $5 million annually and more than 100 jobs.

"We knew that we could find a purpose for that facility," Bauers said. "We knew the city would be behind just about anything we wanted to do because that left a huge hole for the city of Sauk Centre."

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The facility took only delinquent girls when it opened in 1911. Boys were added in 1967 and a 20-bed juvenile sex offender program was added in 1996. The prison closed July 1, 1999.

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