Shakopee women's prison seeks a real fence

11:16 PM, Mar 7, 2012   |    comments
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  • Shakopee prison and perimeter hedge
  • Shakopee Warden Tracy Beltz

SHAKOPEE, Minn. - There's only one women's prison in Minnesota, and it's never had a fence.  There's a hedge along the 4,300-foot perimeter of the Women's Correctional Facility in Shakopee, but it doesn't serve as a real barrier.

Governor Mark Dayton added the $5.4 million fence to his wish list of public works projects in this year's bonding proposal. And Warden Tracy Beltz has gone to work trying to convince lawmakers that a prison like hers needs one.

"There's a common misperception that we house only non-violent offenders, and that has never been the case," Beltz told KARE Wednesday.

"We've always been the only female state facility. No matter what crime they've committed, if they're incarcerated they're incarcerated here."

When the current prison campus opened in 1986 there were 85 inmates. Now there are 570 offenders on site, including 79 murderers.  One of the greatest safety concerns for the prison staff is the elementary school located across the street.

"Since 1995 we've had 7 offenders escape from the facility, and 15 others who were thwarted by our staff," Beltz explained.

"We currently house six offenders out of state because they have attempted to escape and we have no means of securing them in a facility that doesn't have a fence."

When Beltz sends a female to an out-of-state prison, that state sends a male inmate to Minnesota as part of a cost reciprocity agreement.

"We can't do a female-to-female exchange. No other state will send us a female because we don't have a fence."

Beltz said there's also concern about protecting the inmates from intruders.   Some of those who are caught on prison grounds say they're surprised to learn it's a prison, she said.

Others are clearly up to no good and run when confronted by guards.

"Some of these women have had a very volatile history, including domestic violence," Beltz said. "They've had men in their past threaten to do them harm while they're here in Shakopee."

The original women's prison opened nearby in 1919, in an area that was then the outskirts of Shakopee.  By the time the new prison took shape in the 1980's an entire neighborhood had grown up around the prison.

Those neighbors insisted that the new facility blend into its surroundings, and not take on the appearance of a heavily fortified traditional prison.  Budget constraints made it even more tempting for the state to forego the fence, and it was never built.

Dayton's plan would cover a decorative wrought-iron fence with brick posts, similar to what some see on college campuses. The 12-foot high fence would curve in at the top, making it more difficult to scale from inside the prison grounds.

Beltz said the $5.4 million price tag also includes smart technology that enables remote detection of suspicious activity near the fence.

"This design meets our security needs, while it also meets the neighborhood's desire for us to fit into the community," Beltz remarked.

Some Republican members of the House bonding committee sought a cheaper alternative, and were told a traditional chain link fence topped with razor wire could be built for roughly $2 million less.

But that cheaper option probably wouldn't be implemented by the Department of Corrections because it would reignite the neighborhood resistance that crushed recent attempts to build a fence around the prison.

The Shakopee City Council last month voted to sign a letter endorsing the fence, as proposed by the Dayton administration. A stripped down chain link version would not gain their support.

"Our support was based on this wrought-iron design," Shakopee Mayor Brad Tabke told KARE. "We feel it's a good solution that satisfies most neighbors and helps make the prison more secure."

Long-time fence critic Dennis Hron told KARE he remains opposed to the idea.  He said he'll be sharing his concerns with lawmakers.  Hron was featured in a 2007 story about the fence controversy on The Daily Show on the Comedy Central cable channel.

(Copyright 2012 KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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