June 6, 2009 at 1:00 am

Michigan to shutter 8 prisons in budget cutbacks

Plan to release 4,000 inmates to save money draws criticism

Lansing -- Three prisons and five prison camps -- including Oakland County's White Lake -- will close this year under a plan announced by Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Friday and slammed by lawmakers who say the plan puts the public at risk.

The closures, intended to save $120 million to help erase a $1.7 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year, mean 4,000 prisoners who have served at least their minimum sentence will be freed and 1,000 employees laid off.

The fallout will extend beyond the prison walls as the communities nearby feel the impact of the lost jobs.

"Just as we are committed to the public's safety, we are also committed to spending their tax dollars wisely in ways that make sense," said Patricia Caruso, director of the Corrections Department. "The reorganization we are unveiling makes sense from a public safety and budget perspective."

Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-DeWitt, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections, challenged that assertion.

"Michigan has the highest crime rate in the Midwest. So what are we doing closing prisons? Is that going to reduce the crime rate?" he asked. "The governor made her commitment over two years ago to let 6,000 people out of prison. I thought that was nuts. But she is doing it. Public safety is at risk."

Cropsey said the prison closures are "the governor's decision. She takes total responsibility." Granholm does not need legislative approval to implement the plan that would reduce the number of prison beds by 6,400 and cut 800 corrections officer jobs as part of the layoffs.

Prisons in Muskegon; Standish, north of Bay City; and Kincheloe, in the eastern Upper Peninsula; will close between August and November. Low-security prison camps to be closed, besides the 152-inmate White Lake facility, are in Shingleton, Painesdale and Iron River in the U.P.; and Grayling in the northern Lower Peninsula.

The eight facilities cost $118 million to run and house about 4,600 inmates who will be moved to other facilities if they are incarcerated when the facilities close.

'Dollar-driven' policy

Mel Grieshaber, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, said he was "shocked" the administration opted to close eight prisons.

"We had heard three or four," he said. "This is a dollar-driven corrections policy, not good public policy. Just opening the gates and letting out 4,000 prisoners -- that image is something. People should lock their doors."

Grieshaber noted that the 568-inmate Standish prison is a maximum security facility, and that means some dangerous inmates will be moved to lower security classifications, potentially endangering corrections officers and the public.

But John Cordell, spokesman for the Corrections Department, said each convict at Standish will be evaluated and those who require maximum security will be moved to high-security lockups elsewhere in the system.

He said a variety of factors determined which prisons would close, including age of facilities, cost of operation, need for repairs and proximity to other prisons.

"We thought there are 3,500 to 4,000 prisoners who could be screened for release. They would get out in due time anyway," Cordell said.

David Munson, owner of the Summer Trail Inn about two miles east of the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility, said the prison's closing will devastate the five counties surrounding it -- Arenac, Iosco, Bay, Gladwin, Ogemaw -- all places where the prison's workers live.

"I think the prison brings in something like $14 million a year to the economies of all five counties around here, so closing it will have a big impact on the area," he said. "The prison also buys a lot of water around here every year; once it closes, it's not going to do that anymore."

Munson said the Summer Trail Inn is a small-town restaurant and bar established more than five decades ago. He's owned the tavern for the past 14 years.

The closure will have direct impact on his business, he said. The bar frequently serves meals to the prison's employees.

Impact on area businesses

Senate Democratic Leader Mike Prusi of Ishpeming said it's "a slap in the face" to shutter Upper Peninsula prisons in communities "that stepped up to the plate to accept prisons when the state was in need. I am concerned about how these closures will affect workers and their families in these communities, and I hope the department's Lansing bureaucracy will not be spared from the budget knife as well."

Kinross' Gary Sobleski, 66, said he had "no doubt" Kincheloe's closing will affect the area's economy.

"The prison pours a lot of money into the area," said Sobleski, who's lived about three miles from the prison in Kinross since the early 1980s.

"It's not just the people who work there, either. It's all of the visitors who come and eat at the restaurants and stay at the hotels. It definitely will have a big impact on the area."

Granholm said in February when she unveiled her budget blueprint for next year that she would close more prisons to save money in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Two prisons and one prison camp have been closed this year.

The state has 47,552 inmates, down more than 7 percent from a record population of 51,454 in December 2006 and corrections officials say they're on pace to cut the total to 44,000 by October.

A decline in felony convictions, more paroles and sentence commutations and double-bunking of some maximum security inmates are driving down the need for prison space, corrections officials said.

There are about 1,500 empty beds in prisons that were once packed to capacity.

The prison budget is about $2 billion a year, and accounts for one-fifth of the recession-depleted general fund, the state's main checkbook.

The eight prisons whose closures were announced Friday are in addition to the six Granholm has closed since taking office in 2003. She has reopened one lockup. This year, prison housing units were closed at Alger Maximum Correctional Facility in Munising and Marquette Branch Prison in Marquette.

mhornbeck@detnews.com">mhornbeck@detnews.com (313) 222-2470 Staff Writer Charles E. Ramirez contributed to this report.