Mich. prison funding feud fueled by population decline

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – A controversial Michigan Senate budget that would cut $41 million in funding for corrections facilities next year would force 387 layoffs in state prisons and make them more dangerous for staff and inmates, department officials said this week.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and the House are at odds with Senate over the $2 billion corrections budget, which includes cuts Sen. John Proos says reflect continued declines in the state prison population.

Proos has vigorously defended the Senate budget, along with his commitment to prison safety and security.

He recently distributed handouts featuring pictures of smiling kids juxtaposed with stern-faced prisoners, highlighting calculations that Snyder’s 2018 budget plan would increase prison facility funding by $1,480 per inmate but boost K-12 school funding by just $100.

Michigan does not fund prisons on a per-prisoner basis, but Proos called an appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday to take testimony on other funding models policymakers could consider for corrections.

The state is “benefiting from the reduction in the prison population, and we need to see that in reality show up on the balance sheet,” Proos said.

Michigan’s prison population dropped by 1,667 inmates between February 2016 and February 2017, falling from 42,576 to 40,909 in what all parties have celebrated as a successful reduction in recidivism rates.

But the Department of Corrections notes it lost 1,336 beds last year when it closed the Pugsley Correctional Facility in Kingsley, saving $21 million.

Proos wants the department to consider whether it should close another prison next year, but the department claims it does not yet have enough open beds to do so while maintaining enough wiggle room for routine prisoner transfers or unexpected influxes.

“We just came off of that closure, but the numbers that are being used don’t take that into account,” Director Heidi Washington told reporters Monday as she raised alarms over the Senate budget. “That’s already done and over with. It’s gone, those 1,300 beds are gone.”

Without shuttering another prison, the department says the Senate budget would force spending reductions at each Michigan facility that remains open, including a $2.3 million funding cut for the Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison.

The only realistic way to absorb those cuts would be to cut jobs, Washington said, pointing to a department analysis showing projected layoffs of between five and 22 guards and other staff members at each prison.

“We would have many, many staff that would be losing their jobs,” Washington said. “We would be operating our facilities in a manner that I don’t think is safe, and our ability to deliver the programs that ultimately get us to the point of closing a prison … would be severely diminished.”

The overall Senate budget would cut year-over-year corrections spending by $28.3 million and would trim $40 million in general fund spending Snyder proposed for 2018. Funding for facilities would be cut by $41 million compared with 2017, partially offset by increases in other parts of the corrections budget.

Proos said he does not anticipate the department would need to lay off employees because of current vacancies but said Washington would have discretion in how to manage reduced facilities funding, whether it means closing a full prison or part of one.

“It’s up to her as to how she chooses to engage that $41 million decrease,” he said, “but that’s the difference between a continued population and the decline in the population that we’ve seen. Otherwise, what we’re doing is funding open beds.”

The Senate budget won bipartisan support in the upper chamber this month despite pushback from the department, advancing in a 33-4 vote.

The Senate plan does not include $4.4 million in extra spending Snyder proposed to train 177 new corrections officers to meet projected needs of the department, which says it has struggled with high turnover, leaving it short-staffed and in need of extra guards.

The department says it already has more than 550 vacancies, requiring guards and other workers to log overtime hours at higher pay rates to meet mandated staffing levels.

The Senate budget would also eliminate $2.4 million both the governor and state House proposed for inflation-based contract increases with Trinity Food Service due to prison population declines.

Likewise, the Senate voted to reduce $1.8 million in prisoner health care spending despite contractual requirements and reduced $10 million in recommended funding for Hepatitis C treatments.

Snyder had also proposed $1.5 million in new spending to expand a Residential Alternative to Prison program the corrections department operates in Wayne County. The House agreed to fund the expansion into 13 counties in west Michigan, but the Senate instead cut all $500,000 in current funding for Wayne County.

Snyder remains committed to his original budget proposal, a spokeswoman told The Detroit News.

“Negotiations are part of the legislative process and are to be expected, but the amount Gov. Snyder proposed is what he feels is necessary to finance the programs and operations in prisons statewide to protect public safety,” Anna Heaton said.

Snyder and legislative leaders are expected to negotiate a final budget plan in coming weeks. The spending bills will emerge from conference committees for up or down floor votes, likely in June.