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Michigan set to close another prison next year

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Another Michigan prison could close its doors under the 2018-19 fiscal year budget approved in a joint legislative conference committee Tuesday.

Lansing — Another Michigan prison will likely close its doors under a 2018-19 fiscal year budget approved Tuesday in a joint legislative conference committee.

The agreement would save the Michigan Department of Corrections an estimated $19 million, according to state fiscal analysts.

More:Muskegon Heights prison to close amid prisoner decline

The department does not yet have a specific facility in mind for closure, but should have a better idea by October, said spokesman Chris Gautz.

The department sent an email to employees Tuesday morning to inform them of the anticipated closure.

“We didn’t want them to be blindsided,” Gautz said.

Last fall, the state’s prison population fell below 40,000 for the first time since 1993, Gautz said, and has since fallen below 39,000. The department currently has 1,000 available beds among its 30 prisons.

“Over the next couple of months and over the summer, that number is expected to rise,” Gautz said. “By Oct. 1, we feel comfortable that we’ll have enough beds to close a facility.”

The announcement comes a few months after the department closed its West Shoreline Correctional Facility in Muskegon and a couple years after the closure of Pugsley Correctional Facility in Kingsley in 2016.

The department initially opposed another closure, but relented as prison population numbers continued to decline, said Rep. Dave Pagel, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing prisons. Officials believe the lower numbers are due to better vocational training and transition programs for inmates.

"The whole system is kind of working together right now providing us the opportunity to close a prison," said Pagel, R-Berrien Springs.

The House and Senate conference committee estimated about $19.2 million in savings would result from a mid-year closure of the second facility.

Sen. John Proos, a St. Joseph Republican and corrections budget chairman, said the pending closure and declining prisoner numbers are "a product of success" attributable to training programs, problem-solving courts and other efforts to reduce recidivism.

"That’s proof there has been success in the evidence-based programming and the criminal justice reforms that we set in place over these last few years," Proos said.

The proposed $2 billion corrections budget includes more than $13 million requested by Gov. Rick Snyder to transition prison kitchen food service back to state workers, ending a privatization marred by prisoner complaints and fines spurred by unsanitary conditions and inappropriate worker relationships with inmates.

The budget includes $2 million for a new “enhanced food technology program” in collaboration with the Michigan Restaurant Association that will train inmates in prison kitchens for jobs in the food service industry.

The “innovative” program will help ensure inmates leaving prison are employable in the restaurant industry and, in many cases “on the managerial track,” Proos said.

The conference also included roughly $9.2 million for an officer academy that is expected to graduate roughly 359 employees to replace retirees.

During the two previous prison closures, 80-90 percent of employees continued with the department, Gautz said. Other workers were offered continued employment, but declined because of the inconvenience of uprooting to a different facility.  

Though the department has received more funding to train more corrections officers, the additions still will not be enough to fill all of the department's open positions, Gautz said.

Staff writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.